Peeking Inside the Chrysalis: Metamorphosis in 3-D

Emerging monarch

Metamorphosis. In the case of butterflies, it is nature’s version of the great makeover. A plump and slow caterpillar transforms itself into a chrysalis and, tucked snuggly away from the curious prying eyes of the world, metamorphoses into a colorful, graceful butterfly.

Growing up in Iowa, my sister and I had a summer tradition of stalking the milkweed plants in search of Monarch caterpillars. Once we captured our prey, we brought our new acquisitions home and placed them in lovingly crated Mason jar containers filled with milkweed leaves and sticks.  Over the next few days these lucky caterpillars lived in the lap of luxury with a constant supply of milkweed leaves. Once the time came for the caterpillar to transform into a chrysalis, we waited with baited breath for the butterfly to emerge.

As a child, those ten or so days I spent watching the unchanging chrysalis were filled with breathless speculation about what must be happening inside. Years later in biology class I learned all about the stages of butterfly development and what was really happening inside the shell of the chrysalis. This knowledge came with a little kernel of sadness though, because there was only one way for science to have figured out what was happening inside the chrysalis, and that way did not end well for the butterfly-to-be.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could take pictures of what was happening inside the chrysalis without disturbing nature’s makeover mid cycle?

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