Nature Diary 2: Transience

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When something is written, illustrated and published about nature, the emphasis is almost always on pretty pictures and great stories behind each animal or plant that is the subject of the story. Rarely or never the topic is about the last chapter in the lives of these iconic organisms: death.
That in itself is of course fairly obvious, people prefer to show nature in all its splendor and do not like to dwell on how fleeting it really is, nor on the idea that to everything alive there is an end, even to ourselves.
If death is being portrayed on photographs, film or in written form it generally is as part of, for example, the life of a lion that hunts, catches and devours an antelope, or the unfortunate mouse which is caught by an owl. That the lion and the owl sooner or later are forced to become food for the decomposers in nature is rarely, if ever, shown.

The local Gulf Fritillary butterfly on Curaçao, one of the most eye-catching butterflies because of the bright orange color.

Fluttering beauty

No insects appeal to the imagination of man as do butterflies. With their colorful wings and often frivolous behavior, they inflict a sense of wonder in children and adults alike. Butterflies have a complex life cycle. As beautiful as they appear in their ‘mature’ stage, many consider them to be ugly during their childhood.
The life of the butterfly begins with an egg on a leaf. After fertilization has been ensured, the female butterfly lays its eggs on a carefully chosen plant, one that will become the food plant for the hatched small caterpillars. It is simply a matter of efficiency, just place your children on the food they require, so they do not need to search for food. This fact is useful to people who would like to see more butterflies in the garden. Make sure you offer a variety of food plants and the butterflies will come naturally.
After hatching, the caterpillars immediately start to eat, and they really prove to be gluttons. It’s about the only thing they do. With great speed they chew up large amounts of leaf matter, and the remains of digestion are discarded from the back end in solid black pellets of poop.
In relatively short amount of time the caterpillar will grow quite fat because of this eating frenzy, to the extend that it literally bursts out of its skin. Once the animals no longer fit into their skin, they’ll molt and change into bigger ‘clothing’.

Caterpillar of a Monarch butterfly

No bones

The skin of a caterpillar consists of chitin, a substance much like the material our fingernails are made of. ‘Fresh’ chitin is flexible, but once it dries it solidifies into what in biology is called an exoskeleton.
Humans and other vertebrates possess a skeleton of bones within the body mass which defines the shape of the animal, and makes sure the animal does not collapse like a plum pudding.
Insects, including butterflies, have no skeleton to get this done. Their body is in fact nothing but a wet mass in which the organs are positioned. In order to keep this all together these animals have an exoskeleton of chitin, almost a type of corset, which surrounds the whole body and gives the animal its firmness. In caterpillars this jacket consists of separate rings, just like a shower hose.
Every time a caterpillar literally bursts out of his jacket because of its huge food intake, this happens when a ‘fresh’ chitin layer is already in place beneath the old pellicle. Because this new layer is flexible and can stretch, the insect has the opportunity to grow. Once the new skin is dry and stiff, the animal goes back to its main activity: taking up food. Until the next molt.

Chrysalis of a Monarch

Pupa

After the caterpillar has grown big enough the animal undergoes a miraculous transformation. Some caterpillars, of moths, create a pupa of spun silk, in some species between a folded leaf. Others, of butterflies, create a chrysalis, which in fact is a bag which they make themselves in which all parts of the caterpillar, usually without the skin, are transformed into a butterfly in a mysterious process. Science can still not explain exactly how this process works.

 

The end result - a brand new Monarch!

After a certain period of development the point is reached that the butterfly is ready to enter the next phase of its life. With great difficulty the animal wriggles out of its homemade butterfly factory, and will inflate its wings slowly while warming up in the sun. After this has been done the animal will lift off in search of nectar from flowers and a partner to mate, in order for the entire process to repeat itself. Man has great admiration for the beauty of these fluttering insects, especially the brightly colored varieties are favorites.

The end of a butterfly

Wearing out

If you look carefully you’ll sometimes observe butterflies sitting on a flower or flying around that appear really battered. Missing pieces of wings or body parts, frayed wings and dull colors are often obvious in such cases. This will be a butterfly that has reached the end of his or her endurance, and therefore will not live much longer. Because such individuals are usually slower flying, they are easy prey for birds such as the Chuchubi. This bird will devour the juicy body and discard the unpalatable wings. Those of you who have an eye for details might locate these ‘sad’ remnants of what was once a magnificent animal.
This beauty is also fleeting.

Michelle da Costa Gomez

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