Friday, August 7, 2009

Band of Gold

Heimlich is still secure in his chrysalis, working hard to transform. While he prepares to greet the world again, I've been reflecting on the unbelievable event that's taking place inside, one that's unlike anything else in the animal kingdom.

Consider first the chrysalis, waxy green and flecked with gold. It is in fact these gold flecks that give the chrysalis its name - the Greek word for gold is chrysos.

The monarch chrysalis must be one of the most beautiful in Florida, but it's nothing compared to that of the Common Crow butterfly, which lives on the other side of the world. Its chrysalis appears to be made entirely of gold - check out some pictures here.

Of course, there's no real gold in a chrysalis. It's merely a trick of the light. That's probably a good thing - can you imagine the fate of butterflies if their chrysalises were worth their weight in gold?

To begin with, a chrysalis is full of quite a lot of, well, goo, in non-scientific words. When the chrysalis forms, the body of the caterpillar inside breaks down, and the resulting goo is used rather like building blocks to assemble the parts of the butterfly.

(Click here if you'd like to learn more about the process of holometabolism.)

When a chrysalis first forms, it's soft and vulnerable. If it's dropped or damaged at this point, some of the goo may leak out. If this happens, it's unlikely the butterfly will have enough of the building blocks to work with, and will not survive the metamorphosis.

As I mentioned the other day, the chrysalis is actually clear. As the butterfly takes shape inside, you can see the development if you look closely. Note the obvious wing shown in the picture to the right.

Essentially, Heimlich is involved in one of the most amazing transformations imaginable. He's breaking down his entire body and rebuilding it into something completely different. It's one of the most complex processes in the world - and it happens millions of times every year. We here in My Florida Backyard are glad we can be a part of it.

"Oliver wondered how he had lived so long without paying any real
attention to caterpillars. It seemed a terrible oversight."
-Elizabeth Enright, Then There Were Five

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