Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 2, 2009

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:03 pm

You might remember that a few weeks ago I posted a piece on some  un-natural late season events. I included a Red-Panicled Dogwood in flower & a trio of Monarch Caterpillars still munching away on late October milkweeds.  Since that time I’ve seen, or heard of, a few more somewhat freakish off season items including a few emerging Polyphemus Moths and a deer fawn still nursing from her mom. I can explain the moths since they weren’t from a local source. They were  probably southern types unaccustomed to this whole cold weather thing – their built in timers were unfortunately set on Dixie time. The nursing fawn, on the other hand,  illustrates a slightly out-of-the-ordinary late date for nursing. Apparently deer fawns have been known to  nurse until mid-October, even though most fawns are full grass-eaters by that time. The Monarch situation stilled baffled me.

I left that trio of Monarch expecting that they would a) die within a few days , b) live to pupate and then die within a week, or c) die from starvation because the milkweed has dried up. At any rate, death was the only possible option  in their case -assuming the sun didn’t explode and turn late October into August (my Polyphemus moths would have liked that!). I didn’t expect the sun to explode nor did I expect to see them again.  Last week I happened to wander by their withering milkweed patch and was shocked to see two of the caterpillars still in place. They were alive, although not especially well (see below). They’d not grown a millimeter since I last observed them and it was obvious they were stuck in their final instar. In short, they were cold, miserable and near death. It looks like the cool weather had stymied their digestive systems and they weren’t processing their meals properly.

At this point, I probably should have continued on and let nature take her course. After-all, these guys were representing the end of a somewhat stupid genetic line. We all know what nature does to stupid things. Instead, I elected to take in these seasonal orphans – along with what remained of the green milkweed leaves (five in all) – and let them finish out their mission within the summer climes of my workplace. I have done many stupid things in my life, so I felt empathetic towards these fellow stupids. They were like kin to me in a way. On the way back, I stopped to place one of the ‘pillers on some brightly colored Sugar Maple leaves and recorded another entry into my “Impossible Picture” file: A Monarch caterpillar against a fall background (see beginning picture).

Within a few days, my charges ate their fill (pooping out a ton of previously un-pooped poops!), and they prepared for poopation…er, I mean…pupation. Although both ‘pillers performed the ritual, only one chose a highly observable position on the aluminum foil at the top of the jar. They had woven a small patch of silk and dropped into the  “J” position which precedes pupation (see here). It was around 2:30 in the afternoon that I noticed this monarch twitching. On a whim, I then decided to catch this one in the act of transforming into a chrysalis. I set the creature in a place where I could take a series of photos and waited and waited and waited and…  Well, it took nearly eight hours of watching (including a trip in my car) before the event happened. It was well worth the wait.

The unveiling process unrolled quickly once it began. I took shot after shot until the final stage was reached.  Then, I went to bed.

Take a look above at a few of the sequential shots and then click onto this link to see a flip-book sequence of the events. Just before shedding its skin, the monarch’s “feelers” go limp and the creature does an alphabetical shift from a “J” to a capitol “I.”  The skin split along the back and slowly peeled up and away. One thing that I’ve never noticed before (Yes, I saw this twenty years ago) was the sudden appearance of a lateral line dark line just before the splitting occurred. I’m thinking this was some sort of ligament which acted to pull the old skin away. The eerie, but miraculous, sight of a lumpy green pupal form emerging out of a harlequin striped caterpillar is a sight that will never cease to amaze me.

Once the old skin was peeled all the way up, the caterpillar-turned-crysalid wiggled about until the hooked cremaster grabbed the silk pad. At this point the chrysalis was self supporting and it continued wiggling until the old skin finally dropped away. It took an additional hour for the chrysalis to assume the squat Monarch form as it shortened.

And so there you have it – a stupid caterpillar changing into a beautiful, but still stupid, chrysalis.  You and I are now witnesses to the last great miracle of summer. In a few weeks I trust the adult (s) will emerge like astronauts out of a remote time capsule. It will take a while before they realize that they are the only ones of their kind left on the northern edge of the planet. They may never actually realize this before they die. I will feed them none-the-less and thank them for their magnificent (though stupid) performance.


  1. Maybe you could donate the two butterflies, once they emerge, to the Detroit Zoo or somewhere else that keeps butterflies over the winter. The whole caterpillar to butterfly process, despite photographic evidence, still seems impossible tome, much like glass blowing (no matter how many times I’ve seen it done). Thanks for the great progression photos.

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — November 2, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  2. Wow – great photo sequence! I’ve never watched the formation of the crysalis, although I have seen the emergence of the adult at the very end. Now I can’t wait until next summer, when I might get the chance to capture a caterpillar and watch it pupate!

    Comment by Ellen — November 3, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  3. What a captivating sequence of events. 🙂

    Comment by Racquel — November 5, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  4. Spectacular photos! I completely sympathize with the urge to rescue stupid wild things from their own stupidity once in a while.

    Comment by Holly — November 5, 2009 @ 10:42 am

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