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Complete Metamorphosis


Make-shift anchor for a fallen chrysalis, Monarch has emerged

I was happy to see a few late fall Monarch caterpillars in our garden a couple of weeks ago and stoked to spy a chrysalis dangling from the side of our house a week later. But the morning after a storm came through last weekend, I ran out in the rain to check on it and it was gone. I carefully dug through the leaves on the ground near where I last saw it, and luckily revealed the little jade and gold gem. I picked it up and dried it off before rushing it inside for an emergency rehanging. If a chrysalis falls, it usually becomes deformed and dies. Chancing that time was on our side, with ridiculously shaky hands, I fashioned a new mount from some floss, a chopstick, and tape, and suspended it inside a tall wide-mouthed vase on my home office desk with a spindly succulent for company. Over the last week while checking its growth with a flashlight, it looked healthy inside. At first it was perfectly translucent, but soon started to grow opaque in the right places.

Most people have a basic understanding of how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. After it’s born, it eats its eggshell then moves on to chowing on plants until it’s time to form a chrysalis. Then a bunch of science happens inside and out comes a majestic Technicolored flying insect a couple of weeks later. It’s one of nature’s most impressive displays of metamorphosis even without knowing all the science behind the transformation, but once you realize what all transpires inside the chrysalis, and ponder how it parallels our own lives, it’s impossible to not be blown away.

I planted milkweed in my flowerbed to attract and host Monarchs as this essential flower is in short supply due to destruction of its natural habitat from pesticides and construction. If you plant milkweed, you are guaranteed to be visited by Monarchs looking for a place to deposit their wee eggs. They are so tiny when they’re born, smaller than half a grain of rice, but if they’re awake, they’re eating milkweed (and only milkweed) leaves as fast as they can. All along, they face death by lizards, wasps, food shortage, bad weather, and disease, and only the ones that survive long enough will be rewarded with the ultimate gift of flight. In two weeks, they increase by an incredible 3,000 times their birth size. As they eat, they grow, and as they grow, they outgrow their skin and molt thanks to a couple of hormones directing the process. This continues until they stop producing a juvenile hormone that works to suppress metamorphosis until the caterpillar is ready for the next life phase, kind of like their version of hitting puberty.

After one final leafy feast, the caterpillar climbs a wall or a branch, somewhere high up to hang from securely, where it makes a silk button with a spinneret below its mouth. Then it turns around and grasps the button with its back legs and hangs upside down, forming a ‘J’ where it chills for nearly a day. The first sign of the next phase is visible in its antennae which begin flatten and crinkle because they are now empty sleeves. The chrysalis has taken form inside the last skin. At this point, the caterpillar must free itself of the exoskeleton without falling to the ground as it no longer has any legs to crawl back up again. Once the antennae’s appearance change, the next phase is guaranteed to be near, and the caterpillar starts wiggling around again until a split in its skin reveals a soft, brilliant chartreuse chrysalis. Like peeling off a stocking, it quickly works its way out of this last skin then carefully frees its back legs. It will wiggle a bit more to fasten its cremaster, a built-in stake, more securely to the silk button fixture before growing still once more, surrendering to the final transformation.

Then the real magic begins. The imaginal cells that form the structure of the butterfly begin to divide. Most of its other cells will quite literally self-destruct by dissolving, liquifying the useless parts of the body until these imaginal discs are all that remain, except its tracheal system and some guts. They utilize the caterpillar ‘soup’ to nurture the cell division that will form the parts of the winged creature within. Deformities like an injured leg and wonky antennae will all be reabsorbed and made anew. It takes about ten days for the butterfly to eclose, then it’s off to find its first taste of nectar; no more leaves will be on the menu. Once a struggling earthbound grub, the butterfly emerges with a new form, a new mode of transportation, a new diet, and new ambitions before it dies a second and final death. As Monarch expert Dr. Lincoln Brower puts it, “It’s like you took a Ford into the shop and left it there for a week and it came out as a Cadillac.” 

So how can you compare this incredible yet perilous journey to your own life? Stop for a moment to think this over before reading my own soliloquy that ran through my head before sleep the other night, prompting me to write this.

I was laying in bed Friday night, thinking of the miraculous transformation taking place in the room below me. A fragile creature had finally reached a stage that would bestow it with a resemblance of an entirely different species. No other insect undergoes this phenomenon, but there is a way humans can relate to this dramatic process. As with a caterpillar’s physical challenges, we too spend most of our lives tending to our basic survival needs. Whether or not these means are acquired easily or with difficulty, we also have other needs to nourish. If we fill our bellies but neglect to tend to our emotional and psychological hunger pangs, we become stunted and deformed, and every area of our lives are negatively impacted. We wither away from the inside out. There comes a point in life when we sense it isn’t in our power to heal whatever is broken inside; the wound is beyond our reach. With our last bit of strength, we must climb up as high as we can within, holding on tight, and utter a plea for the universe to mend its feeble child. All that’s left to do then is surrender.

The Last Shot - monarch

The Last Shot

We have to be as brave and willing as the caterpillar to submit to a small death while the rest of the world rushes by without us. Honor, pride, our desires for vengeance and absolution, and each unsatisfied resolution with those who have hurt us, are all among the useless parts of our lives we must allow to self-destruct. We have to let our old form and debilitating thoughts disintegrate to make way for a new, healthier disposition. Despite its complete metamorphosis, moths and butterflies remember their life as an adult larva, as some of our own memories, bad and good, can never be forgotten. A study proved the hornworm caterpillar could be trained with small shocks to avoid a certain odor after it emerged as a moth. Yet like a moth into a flame, humans often fly headlong back to the same old miseries, over and over again. Life is hard enough without falling victim to our own undoing. To transcend our current limits we must  unlash ourselves from the stakes that pin us to our past.

Yesterday morning, the Monarch emerged from its chrysalis, but after several hours in the sun, its wings remained slightly limp, and it hadn’t made an effort to fly away. When I went to check on its progress, it flew to the ground, landing on my foot. I picked it up and put it on my chest for a while. It flew a good distance to a banana leaf and stayed there until the sun went down, so I took it back inside for the night to keep it warm. I brought it back out this morning and placed it on a dewy cluster of yellow lantana where it It was in the same spot for most of morning, but it was gone. I don’t know how successful it will be at accomplishing its new set of ambitions, but it survived one of nature’s most radical transformations, sprouted glorious wings, and rode upon the wind—not bad for a being born as a spineless grub.  

Macro detail of Monarch wing showing a spot that identifies it as male

Macro detail of Monarch wing showing a spot that identifies it as male

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