The Mystery of Metamorphosis

By Shawn Radcliffe

photo: Muhammet Ceylan

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”
~Richard Bach

If you look closely at a plant in your backyard or in the soil beneath your feet, you may find one of nature’s most mysterious black boxes—the chrysalis. On one side of this black box, a caterpillar goes in. On the other, something entirely different emerges—in this case, a butterfly or a moth. But what happens inside is not entirely known.

The metamorphosis of a caterpillar seems simple enough, but the change is so dramatic that early naturalists thought a butterfly was a new life rising out of the caterpillar’s burial cloth, along the lines of a spiritual ascent or the casting off of an old shell.

Like many transformations—both physical and spiritual—the change undergone by a caterpillar away from prying eyes is so great that it’s easy to wonder how much of the original remains after it breaks free of its shell.

If you cut open a chrysalis shortly after it forms, you won’t find a caterpillar morphing gradually into a butterfly, with well-defined intermediate stages. Instead, the chrysalis is filled with a liquid-like substance—the result of the caterpillar’s body breaking down or dissolving into a “soup of cells.”

Yet somehow, this soup magically transforms into a butterfly or a moth. And along the way, pieces of the caterpillar survive—there is a continuity between the old and the new. Scientists have discovered that even some of the caterpillar’s memories remain in the butterfly.

Also, while dissecting a caterpillar, a 17th century Dutch biologist discovered that early versions of the future butterfly—such as the wings, antennae, and legs—already exist in the caterpillar’s body before the formation of the chrysalis.

So caterpillars already carry parts of their future selves inside, and the potential for transformation exists even before it is visible from the outside. Isn’t that amazing?!

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For more on caterpillars and metamorphosis, listen to Radio Lab’s broadcast, Goo and You

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