Monday, August 30, 2010

A Regal Emergence Monarch Metamorphosis Final Act!

Welcome to the crowning moment of the Monarch butterfly metamorphosis!  It is a miraculous birth of unending wonder. Whether having seen it once or hundreds of times, each thrilling happening holds you captivated and inspired by the miracle of life. Butterfly emergence alert! Note the accordion-like ridges at the top of the chrysalis . . . this is a sure sign the butterfly is about to emerge. If you look at the earlier shots in the last post you will clearly see the difference. The top of the chrysalis is very smooth without the open ridges in it's earlier stages.

Last time in Act III a sneak peek at Aria's chrysalis form completely changed within was presented . . .  her butterfly wings singing out through the clear chrysalis casing. In Act I . . . though I did not call her by name . . . you are able to see her teeny, glossy black caterpillar head inside her eggshell and watch as she grows, molts and munches her landscape of milkweed.  We can recall how in Act II . . .  as a caring caterpillar . . .  with a title of 'fifth instar' . . . she cleverly crafts her silk button and secures it about the sedum stem. In Act III Aria's last magical molt reveals a jade green jewel-like chrysalis dangling from her 'crewmaster' carefully attached to hundreds of threads of silk. Now we can see how her handiwork will support her through the final act of her metamorphosis. She weighs less now than when she began her chrysalis stage and presently. . . as a butterfly . . .  is ready to be free . . .  to dry and fly. In amazement we can watch as she shoves open the door of her chrysalis casing . . .  then steadfastly she slides and flops out into her new life . . . cautiously catching herself in the act.

WHEW! Aria is safely holding on for dear life to her chrysalis casing. Her tiny wet wings are useless to her now and her life depends on the chrysalis and silk button holding fast, for if they were to fall apart she too would fall . . .  to certain death. When she tumbles out, her legs become like strings to a parachute . . . her chrysalis the parachute! Quite the acrobat, she can perform many acts at the same time. While catching herself, she also immediately works several of her new parts. Her tongue or proboscis must be wound and unwound till both pieces work as a straw-like form. You can see her moving her palpi . . . the two mostly white small extensions next to her proboscis and first pair of tiny legs.  The palpi along with her antennae will heighten her sense of smell. Her sight is more complex with compound eyes filled with thousands of little lens similar to our camera lens, that perceive light and forms. Traces of milkweed white juice are found dotted along Aria's thorax, abdomen and orange and black wings. 

Aria's abdomen is pumping blood into the veins of her wings. Cass and Polly still hang nearby in their chrysalis form. 

Within minutes, as her wings inflate, Aria moves up along the sedum stem allowing the delicate wet fabric-like wings more room to hang and dry.

Aria and one of the Muses, who emerges before I wake, will hold onto the sedum stem and leaf, much like lovely garments on a clothes line, until their wings are dry and hardened.

Here is another Muse about to exit and enter as a new creature!

Another free fall into life! 

How about a different perspective this time . . . what a plump abdomen . . . filled with the life blood of the butterfly wings and body. What a clever way to fit those magical wings into the small casing!

There is something about that design that captivates my imagination!

Spreading wet wings suddenly fill the space with color.

Another Muse descends upon the scene . . . that makes three.

Perhaps that is a sac on the third black line from the abdomen way. It seems we might have a male Muse! I had to use a wine glass to hold up the Hosta leaf . . . not the leaf of choice . . . for the photographer . . .  but the caters sure love it.

Once Aria is adjusted to her new parts and her wings are dry, she lets me know she is ready to go, by flapping her wings. I quickly and gently encourage her to climb on my finger. Then as I have done many times before, I walk a flawless, fresh butterfly out into the garden. Each time I walk this way I feel so blessed. This day I carefully place Aria onto a bloom of butterfly bush . . . how perfect can that be. Other times hundreds of butterflies have found my finger useful as a flight pad . . . while I . . . the lucky one . . . watch in amazement, as they take their first flight. I whisper "Good Luck" as they flap and ready for take off. Sometimes I find they are in no hurry and will spend a few moments on the tip of my forefinger moving all their new parts about . . . much like our exercises . . .  to strengthen each tiny muscle. Aria is a fine fully formed female emerging in mid August. I am not certain if she will stay in the garden, for a two week life span . . . mate, lay eggs then sadly die . . .  or if she is destined for a six month life span, which includes a long perilous journey to Mexico . . .  for I understand migration has begun. 

Aria and one of the Muses seem content and add magic and beauty to the garden. They will spend more quiet time adjusting to their new selves before feeding and flying freely. 

Later in the week Cass and Polly emerge . . . only Cass is a girl not a twin boy! She does remind me somewhat of her comical caterpillar self with her antennae held in a similar way to her once animated tentacles. What an enchanting colorful creature to have known during her changing life. Now ready for flight . . .  she has a large world to join  . . .   

and we are left with only green and an empty clear chrysalis casing. A lovely keepsake.    Knowing caterpillars and butterflies this way certainly makes any ordinary day seem remarkable . . . memories that add magical fibers to the fabric of our lives . . . building a better understanding of the natural world we all hold dear and with great reverence.

This is the final act of the Monarch Butterfly's Metamorphosis, although not the end of our journey together, if you care to join me on a trip to Mexico . . .  I took some years ago. I traveled with a group led by one of the first American biologist to discover the overwintering sites of the Monarch Butterflies. Of course Mexicans have known about it throughout generations . . . for Monarch butterflies have been returning to Mexico on the Day of the Dead for hundreds of years. This was a fabulous trip and an important one for my book proposal . . . for how could I write about this marvel of an insect without the final chapter. Please do not anticipate spectacular photos of large clusters of butterflies. My photos of the trip are merely average but will give you a good idea of the area and native peoples, who live near the sites our beloved Monarchs fly to each fall. I hope you will join me and who knows maybe we can all plan a visit together! 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Captivating Chrysalis Curtain Rising Monarch Metamorphosis Act III

I would like to offer Act III of the Monarch Metamorphosis as my contribution to Wildflower Wednesday over at Gail's Clay and Limestone. I begin the text below so that you can scroll through uninterrupted to see Cass unveiling his beautiful chrysalis. Drum roll please!

In my last post Cass was hanging with his skin splitting just behind his head. Now we see by scrolling down through the images, his amazing metamorphosis into his beginning pupa or chrysalis stage.  Just beneath his striped skin, throughout his caterpillar life, he has been cultivating his inner gem. Very soon if not already little Cass is no more as we knew him . . .  I should like to understand what consciousness is steering a most amazing feat in this early chrysalis stage. 

As Polly pulls up the final curtain let's consider the intelligence and highly proficient means by which the part caterpillar, part butterfly carries out this gymnastic achievement. It is truly nothing less than extraordinary. This can be a dangerous time for the little beings, and how this act unfolds will determine their future. Out in gardens, along highways and corridors caterpillars hang defenseless, waiting for just the right moment to pull off their old dresses. The weather, a passing fox, a curious warbler or even a gardener weeding may hinder their success. Remarkably many, who make it to this last molt, will survive to become butterflies. 

Remember how Cass and Polly were hanging upside down . . . here we can see, as the caterpillar skin rises, it reveals the new templates for the wings, head, proboscis and antennae. I find it fascinating that moments before I thought I was looking at a caterpillar, while really the caterpillar skin is like a masque for the amazing change happening during the last stages of the caterpillars life . . . a forming pupa or chrysalis. No wonder Cass and Polly stopped eating . . . they no longer had a mouth or mandible . . . just how quickly could this transformation have happened? Maybe twelve hours or so, for I have noticed they do hang overnight often.  To exchange a mandible for the castings of butterfly parts must have been in the making for some time, though we could not have known by looking at Cass and Polly.  I wonder if scientist have ever used xray on caterpillars while studying them.  It might cause harm and perhaps the magic and mystery is better left to our imaginations . . . like that of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

Here Polly is working hard to connect to the carefully crafted silk button. He had to pull his little stem scientist called a 'crewmaster' out from under the pile of skin . . . without eyes mind you . . . barely being connected at this time . . . and reach over to attach to the silk button. This indispensable stem was created while C and P were caterpillars. Electron microscopic pictures by Dr. Lincoln Brower (foremost Monarch expert) show hundreds of tiny crochet needle-like hooks at its tip. Polly must twist and turn to get the tiny hooks though hundreds of the silk threads so that he will not fall. This is a dangerous moment and I often hold out one hand, while the other is taking the photos. Once it paid off for one fell right into my hand. I placed it in the soft corolla of an autumn crocus, quickly found some thread and tied the chrysalis onto a stem. What intelligence is at work here? There are still some caterpillar traits left in its appearance . . . perhaps there is some cater intelligence and memories stored in the cells and disks . . . is it the cater or the becoming butterfly at work . . . knowing to carefully inch and feel his way over the skin then to twist and turn his new form so that the crewmaster will become firmly attached. I find this so miraculous!  You can see this happening if you look carefully in photos three, four and five of Cass muscling his skin off. It is a bit more effort to get the pile of skin to fall off too.

At last Cass and Polly are dressed only in their new finery. They are wearing white pearl necklaces beneath a yellow fine line that spreads out from under their right wing templates from one side, and goes around their back and under the wings on their left side. Soon a broken black line will appear as if by magic under the white beads. You can see that Polly is still catching up to Cass, for his chrysalis is more complete in form. 

Now both being equal more or less . . .  Cass and Polly are hidden beneath their green wings hanging by their newly created cremaster. Cass and Polly hang as chrysalises, a beautiful milkweed and sedum green, with three dimensional, yellow dots here and there.  Their white, yellow and black necklaces are the colors of the former caterpillar and perhaps a token in remembrance of that capable courageous little critter. Later this necklace will appear gold. I think  Cass and Polly deserve a gold medal for all their efforts in creating this beautiful jewel which houses a butterfly in the making. There is no scientific explanation for why the necklace exists . . . so I will stand by my take on why and will add that of course the Milkweed plant is remembered too by the milky white beads. One can imagine any reason as to why.  To dazzle ... to blind when lit by the sun so as to protect. The yellow drops near the bottom are very close to where the eyes are located. 

The wing templates expand up towards the top of the chrysalis, enveloping what remains of the caterpillar-like form filled with what appears like mustard seeds. I imagine these are cells and 'imaginal disks' that will become the new organs of the butterfly. In a couple of weeks the Monarch butterfly will push open and fall out of the area between the two wings. The antennae perfectly outlines the doorway. 

I wonder what this fellow thinks of Arias new form? Perhaps he has an instinct that tells him this form is already in the making beneath his striped skin. Here Aria has been a chrysalis for a few hours. The outer translucent protective casing is hardening while the inside seems to be like a jade green fluid. 

Here the first of the Three Muses is beginning to push up her old skin. The dark line in the middle going up the side of the skin is a trachea . . .  a tube which brought in oxygen and distributed it throughout the caterpillar body. You can see the middle Muse is about to begin too . . . note her lifeless, spiraling tentacles and the coloring changes near her head.

Now the last Muse is about to go.

Here is her new form wearing a white beaded necklace with a yellow brush stroke across the top.

You can clearly see the broken black line magically appearing here in the first Muse chrysalis. 

Now all six caters have gone through a complete metamorphosis. The chrysalises will  remain this way for about fourteen days. From the outside all seems still, while inside a butterfly is being assembled. 

What a stunning metamorphosis!

You have come a long way in such a short time!

Before we end let's say farewell once again to the heros and heroines of the hour. They grew and changed many times over their two week life span . . . the first tiny instar could fit within the stripes of the last. Here another fledgling community begins, so I will have more caters to care for and observe. A note and illustration to show that caters do not always choose the safest places to hang their chrysalises. I believe they would never choose Milkweed leaves in the wild. No worry that they will be eaten, but every bite of Milkweed will be eaten around where the pupa hangs. All that will be left will be the large vein of the leaf and the milkweed green chrysalis. Somehow the caters know not to eat the entire leaf this time, though they will eat the teeny eggs if mistakenly place within their reach. We sometimes learn things the hard way.  For this narrative the part the caterpillar plays is now recast and we shall see them no more. Dear caterpillars I bid you a fond adieu . . . bon voyage in your ongoing metamorphosis!

Perhaps one or two disks within have your memory bank backed-up and safely stored.

Next time we will witness Monarch butterflies emerging from their transparent chrysalis casings. Surely there is no piece of jewelry more spectacular than nature's mini masterpieces. 

A sneak peek at next week. 

May you experience many of natures wild, magical gifts and be inspired . . . filled with awe and joy . . . for being this close to nature can be transforming to the spirit. 

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