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A Caterpillar Sheds Its Skin

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Down at the Monarch Ranch, the caterpiggles were gettin' fat, poopin' and eatin', poopin' and eatin'. When they get this big and fat, they'll soon go on walkabout, looking for a place away from the milkweed patch where they can hang themselves up, shed their caterpiggle skin, and burst forth as a chrysalis. You have to pounce on them when they get big and fat if you want to be part of the process. This'n's ready to harvest.
We bring them inside and install them in a small terrarium, where we put a fresh milkweed top in a narrow-necked vase of water to provide food. They eat like crazy for a couple of days and then wander around, finally pasting themselves to the top of the terrarium with silk. Here, the caterpillar is creating the liquid silk pad that will harden and suspend it for the next couple of weeks. The head end is to the left. It can be hard to tell with monarchs which end is which. I think the silk comes out of spinnerets in the rear end.

Once secure, the caterpillar hangs upside down in a J shape, waiting for the transformation to chrysalis. Slowly, the caterpillar's brilliant yellow, black and white skin becomes dull and translucent. The first sign that something's going down is when the antennae, normally mobile and responsive, get all limp and crinkled. See how the antennae on the head are just hanging here, no longer turgid?

Here, I must stop and give credit to Phoebe, who watched this caterpillar like a hawk, and kept it with her so she wouldn't miss the moment when it split its skin to emerge as a chrysalis. She noticed an undulating motion as the caterpillar hung there, and the skin started to stretch and pile up at the fastening point at the rear. Suddenly it split down the back like a pair of my old skinny pants.
From there, things progressed quickly, and the undulating wave of the chrysalis' still pliable body sent the skin rumpling up into a pile at the rear end of the creature.
Seeing this glorious, fantasmagorical thing emerge from the dulled skin of the caterpillar was awe-inspiring.
More and more stripes and abdominal segments are visible with each wriggle.I especially love the next shot, because Phoebe's sweet red lips are blurred in the background. At this point we're all whooping and hollering, and I'm frantically shooting around both kids' heads as they crowd in to see the miracle. Look at the blue, gold, and white stripes!! Who knew?

Now the chrysalis changes its dance, with the undulating wriggle becoming a wild spiral hula as it moves the skin up and off its body.In the picture above, you can see the proto-wings of the butterfly-to-be, folded like shields over its body.

A few more wild loops, and the skin pops off-ptoo! to land on the vinyl tablecloth, creepy legs, antennae, and jaw parts intact. The chrysalis won't be needing those jaws any more. Transformed to a sucking straw, they'll be. It's all too much, really, to try to describe or assimilate, too miraculous and bizarre. More anon.


No way! Thank you Phoebe for keeping watch. Since I seem to be too late for my own Monarch Ranch in NH this year, I am thrilled that I get to watch yours. Thanks for the magic.

"miraculous and bizarre" are probably the best our language can do for it, yet even those words seem inadequate!
And very timely, I just had a polyphemus caterpiller form a cocoon on a plant in my screened-in porch.

Thanks Phoebe! I'm enjoying my home-schooling here too.

Marvelous photos! I commend your and Phoebe's patience!

For other readers-if you haven't tried this yet give it a whirl. Don't smoothly pull the slider on your viewer; tap on the track at an even pace to see the pictures in motion. Not quite a video, but fun for those of us easily amused.

We got to watch this for the first time just this past weekend. It is amazing how fast it happens. If you blink you might miss some of it happening. Miracle indeed.

Awe inspiring - YES! Fabulous job, Phoebe for your vigilance. Wonderful photos, Julie!

Can't wait to see more.

What a miracle.

Thanks so much for taking time to share.

No wonder butterflies are the symbol of renewal. Seeing the stages of caterpillar transforming to chrysalis is wondrous.

If chrysalis has Latin and Greek word origin meaning "gold", this experience is one of pure gold to watch, isn't it?
Thank you for sharing your treasure with us.
Caroline in South Dakota

Wowhee! Now that's some trippy transmogrifyin'.
All I can think of is that line from that bad old Ronald Reagan movie (was it King's Row?): "Where's the rest of me?!?"

That is just sooooo cool! Thanks for showing us step by step how it sheds its skin. Just another miracle of nature. :c)

So wonderful to have captives to watch!
And such entertainment for the kids--better than anything on TV!

What else can capture us at any age--than the metamorphosis of a small wormy creature!

Interesting how the caterpillars skin landed near a fruit on the table cloth.

Wow, what an experience! I've never seen this transformation documented so well. Thanks, Phoebe and Julie!

Btw, Julie, thanks for checking over my ID attempts on my "Displaced" post. I was really doubting myself on the cattle egrets -- never seen them wading before!

That is a cool series of photos!

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