Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 8, 2009

A Black Crystal

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:37 pm


Every stage of the Monarch Butterfly life cycle is fascinating, but the caterpillar and adult stage get all the attention. I must admit that I experience Monarch overload in this regard. It’s not that I ignore these stages, it’s only that I fail to get too excited about them due to their overly-common nature. I still raise them on occasion in order to glimpse the other metamorphic stages that are less commonly seen such as the egg or chrysalis stage. The eggs are structurally beautiful, but basically too small and ephemeral to attract much press. Emerging caterpillars eat them as soon as they  hatch. The emerald green chrysalids, on the other hand, are works of unparalleled natural art. Real artworks -such as the jewelry creations of  Barbara Bosco & Jude Rose – are inspired by these structures. It took the recent “destruction” of one of these perfect chrysalid packages to renew my Monarch interest.

In the Monarch world, every life stage must end before the next can begin. A chrysalis lasts for only about two weeks. Any chrysalis going beyond this time has failed to do its job. It must be destroyed, in other words, before it can justly be considered worthy. Near the end of its determined time, around day 31 in the cycle, the thing appears to become black.  On some individuals, the blackness is the result of  an attack of a fatal virus called the “Black Death” and these truly,not figuratively, die. On healthy individuals the skin on the chrysalid becomes clear within a day of its destruction. It is at this time that the black and orange features of the inner butterfly are dramatically revealed (see above). This stage, which I’ll call the black crystal stage for lack of a better name, is starkly beautiful and frightfully temporary. It is worthy of its own jewelry line in my opinion (see another view here).

The features that really stand out at this stage are the multiple gold spots which form a line over the rump along with the singular gold highlights about the frontal portion. No-one is quite sure why these golden lumps exist. That they originate from the reflective cardenolide chemicals found in the milkweed food plant is well established, but little is known beyond that. In the 1970’s Fred Urquhart, the guru of Monarch research from the University of Toronto, performed a set of experiments which indicated that these spots may have something to do with scale formation and color. Little research has been done since that time, unfortunately, so we’ll just have to be satisfied that they are simply “pretty.”

The Monarch that ultimately destroyed this temporary jewel emerged about three hours after the black crystal pictures were taken. It was a very delicate and proper female (see above and here). She took off without ceremony later in the day as I held her up into her new airy element.  In addition to leaving my hand behind, the butterfly also abandoned the shattered remains of her former self without any regrets (see below).

1 Comment »

  1. Beautiful photographs! Abslutely stunning. Thank you for sharing. I am a great lover of the Monarch.


    Comment by Jacqui Knight — August 9, 2009 @ 7:32 am

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