Understanding butterfly metamorphosis

Picture of butterfly metamorphosis.

Butterfly a master of change

The butterfly we observe poised on the flower has not always been as delicate or as graceful.

It has experienced some rapid and dramatic changes in form. This process of development is called complete metamorphosis.

Drastic changes take place between the different stages of the one living organism.

Depending on the kind of butterfly, life begins as a tiny egg laid on the leaf of a plant that will be eaten by the larva—or better known by its other name, caterpillar—when it hatches.

Some eggs may develop into caterpillars within three short days. Other eggs laid in the fall will pass the winter before hatching.

Once free of its eggshell home, the hungry caterpillar proceeds to devour the empty shell.

Then it turns its attention to the host plant.

The little creature is a virtual eating machine as it gorges itself to store up enough food to last through the lean days ahead.

Butterfly specialists claim that if a six-pound human baby would gain weight at the same rate as caterpillars, at the end of two weeks the baby would tip the scales at eight tons!

Inevitably, as the caterpillar satisfies its voracious appetite, its body expands, and it literally outgrows its skin.

Typically, a caterpillar will split and shed its skin four or five times before entering into its third stage of development—the pupa stage.

This most fascinating caterpillar molt begins when the full-grown larva attaches itself to a surface with a silken lifeline.

 In an aerial act that would amaze most circus performers, the caterpillar sheds its outer skin to reveal a pupal shell beneath.

All the furious eating comes to a halt.

The pupa, or chrysalis, may now look inactive or even dead, but inside an incredible transformation is taking place that will change the larva into a beautiful butterfly.

Hormones cause most of the larval organs to dissolve, and the resulting fluids and materials rearrange to form the adult inside the pupa.

Warm temperatures, adequate length of daylight, and moisture signal the developed butterfly inside that the time is right to emerge.

The chrysalis splits open as the winged beauty struggles to get free, taking anywhere from 90 seconds to 5 minutes.

The newly hatched butterfly hardly looks fit to make its debut.

Its cramped quarters have left its wings wet and crumpled.

So, clinging where it has emerged, it pumps body fluids in the veins of the wings, which expand and begin to harden.

Its life may span from three days up to eight months or even a year.