Metamorphosis is a subject that fascinates us here at Native Nurseries. We and our customers love to watch the process occur up close in the caterpillar raising cages we build and sell here at the nursery, and we’ve had some fun and interesting caterpillar events over the years.
There were the Luna Moths we raised from eggs a customer brought us. What a gorgeous creature! The majority of its days are spent as egg, caterpillar and cocoon. When it emerges as an adult moth it has only three more days to live. It does not even have a mouth since it does not eat! Imagine being allotted only three days to live as an adult. They are spent finding a mate and producing eggs . . . and flying . . . at least it gets to fly.
Then there was the Monarch caterpillar that chose the underside of our front counter as a good location to become a chrysalis. It later chose the morning of our Fall Butterfly Festival to emerge. You should have seen the look on the customer’s face as she pointed to the Monarch butterfly climbing Jody’s jeans as he rang up her butterfly purchases! We could not have planned that in a million years!
We had another metamorphosis moment a couple years ago on a Saturday morning. Donna noticed that an Imperial Moth had finally emerged from its cocoon. Unfortunately, by the time she noticed the moth had disappeared. We needed to find it so it could be released that night to look for a mate, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to locate because the Imperial Moth is yellow and purple and has a wing span of up to 5½ inches. Donna and Lilly searched high and low and finally even pulled everything out from under the table the pupa sat on for so long, but to no avail. The moth was gone.
The empty cocoon was pretty interesting in itself and we showed it to many customers who came in that day. Some of them helped us look again for the moth, but it was not to be found.
Later that afternoon Jody was again showing the empty cocoon to some customers and telling them about the missing moth. A young girl in the group took a short look around the room, went back to the bird room and within seconds pointed at the ceiling. “Well there it is,” were her words; but her tone clearly said, “Grownups . . . how helpless!” Yep, there it was—a beautiful, female imperial moth—on the back wall where it meets the ceiling behind the branches Brian used to decorate the bird room. Man, to have the eyes of a child again!
Caterpillars, butterflies and moths are such interesting creatures—some fly incredible distances, such as the Monarch in its migration to Mexico each winter. Even more amazing is the fact that they find their way to the same trees in the same small region every year, especially when you consider they’ve never made the trip before. They are several generations from the group who made the trip the previous year.
Some species can detect a potential mate from a long distance. The male Polyphemus Moth can sense a female from several miles away even though she releases only one billionth of a gram of pheromone (scent) per hour. It’s a pretty necessary talent I suppose, as short lived as some moths are!
Some are beautiful, some look like bird poop (Giant Swallowtail caterpillar) and some look very scary (Hickory Horned Devil). Some are more interesting than others—but they all have one incredibly interesting process in common—metamorphosis. And one of the most interesting stages of metamorphosis to witness is the beginning of pupation. This creature changes from a caterpillar into what looks like a sack of fluid or a dried up old leaf or a beautiful ornament complete with shiny, gold trim in a very short time, right before your eyes. The process actually starts hours (or days) earlier, but once the caterpillar’s skin splits, it sheds that skin in a very short time and then this shapeless, legless, blind blob has to step out of that skin (while hanging upside down no less), let that skin drop and then reattach itself to the small pad of silk it has attached to the substrate. Imagine a blind Olympic gymnast with no arms winning the gold! Is it any wonder we find the subject so fascinating?