Weber column: Butterfly magic, part two

Richard Weber
Nature Columnist

The migration of the monarch butterfly is amazing enough, but there is a second chapter in the story that is just as amazing and it all takes place before the butterfly even leaves home.

For the monarch, home is a milkweed plant where it spends its youth coming of age, so to speak. The coming of age involves a remarkable process called metamorphosis.

There are four stages in this process, egg, larva, pupa and adult. In butterflies, the larva is a caterpillar and the pupa is a chrysalis. The only apparent purpose of the worm-like caterpillar is to consume milkweed leaves. When it gets big enough it weaves itself into a hard-shelled chrysalis.

And that’s where the magic happens. In goes a caterpillar and out comes a butterfly. Few changes in nature are more dramatic. If a Martian botanist landed on earth, he would classify the caterpillar and butterfly as two different species.

The story of the frog and the prince is hardly less fantastic, but everyone knows you can’t turn a frog into a prince. That only happens in fairy tales.

But this is no fairy tale. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar dissipates and the remnants come together to create a whole new set of cells, tissue and organs. The caterpillar really does become a butterfly.

This transformation might seem more amazing if it were rare, but it’s not. More than 80 percent of all insects undergo complete metamorphosis.

G. K. Chesterton wrote: “The world will never starve for want of wonders but only for want of wonder.” If we’re starving for wonder it may be due to our lack of contact with nature. We all learn about metamorphosis in school, but the fact is filed away as just another piece of abstract information. Few of us have ever seen it happen.

The want of wonder is a condition that tends to grow worse with age. As Einstein once said, you can either live as though nothing is a miracle or as though everything is a miracle. We come into the world thinking everything is a miracle and we leave thinking nothing is a miracle.

To restore your sense of wonder, watch the kids. A boy came into my class one day with a jar, and in it was a chrysalis attached by a thread to a piece of broken twig. I put a screen over the jar and placed it on the back counter.

Several days later as I was lecturing to the class, someone in the back row suddenly yelled, “The chrysalis is moving!”

All at once everyone sprang to their feet and ran to the back of the room post haste, and there they spent the rest of the period watching an unidentified brownish-orange butterfly slowly emerge from the chrysalis.

I’ve had many interruptions in my classroom over the years, but none of them were quite so enjoyable. No lesson of mine could top the one that nature presented that day.

Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast who writes from his country home near Ellis. Reach him at