|A newly emerged monarch butterfly dangles from its pupal case (10:41 a.m.). Her wings are wrinkled and wet. She must expand the wings by pushing hemolymph (bug blood) into the wing veins.|
|Butterflies secrete a liquid to help soften the chrysalis (pupal case) so they can emerge (eclose). You can still see droplets of the liquid inside the chrysalis.|
|As the wings straighten out and harden, the butterfly starts to climb higher and away from the spent chrysalis (12:21 p.m.).|
|Our new monarch butterfly hangs from a milkweed leaf clearly chewed and eaten away by a monarch caterpillar (maybe by her two weeks earlier).|
|The wings continue to straighten and harden. It's been a little over two hours since the butterfly emerged (12:50 p.m.).|
|Her wings are considerably harder and straighter...she's gorgeous, but she still hangs tight, not moving. The black and white polka dots on her head, thorax, and wing tips are just as striking as the orange color in her wings.|
|Like a toddler beginning to walk, our newly emerged monarch flaps her wings for the first time (1:03 p.m.). It's been almost 2.5 hours since she broke out of the pupal case.|
|Finally, almost another hour later, at 1:58, she is ready to try her wings. I switched over to video to capture her flight. |
I knew it would be soon...
Monarch Butterfly's First Flight from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.
What a crazy ride...
I had read it usually takes monarch butterflies about an hour to go from emergence to flight, but our little girl took almost 3.5 hours. She dawdled, and grew stronger, and dawdled some more. The longer wait gave me time to really think about the process of metamorphosis, and I'm glad for it. The more I thought about what was happening, the more amazed I was. I had been reading about the process of metamorphosis since I was a kid, but I had never witnessed every stage...from egg, to all the larval instars, to the chrysalis, to emergence and flight. It's an outrages process...and immensely cool to witness.
Monarch development at a glance...
Here is a quick timeline to get a feel for how long it takes to go from egg to butterfly. Monarchs undergo complete metamorphosis and have four stages of life—egg, larva (the caterpillar stage), pupa (the chrysalis stage), and adult.
Egg (3-6 days)
Female Monarchs lay a single egg on a milkweed leaf (the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat). The eggs hatch in 3-6 days.
Caterpillar (9-15 total days in the larval stage; 5 instars, each lasting 2-3 days)
When the egg hatches, the caterpillar is so small it's hard to see, but it grows very fast. Soon it can no longer fit in its skin, so it sheds its skin and continues to grow. Each time a caterpillar sheds is called an instar. Monarch caterpillars go through 5 instars before they are full grown.
Chrysalis (9-14 days in the pupal stage)
When the caterpillar is full grown, it finds a safe place to pupate, often roaming up to 20-30 feet away. It creates a tiny silk mat on the underside of the leaf and then attaches itself to the mat with its cremaster (the hooklike tip of the pupa). It then sheds its skin for the last time. Under the skin is a light green casing called a chrysalis. At first it is soft, but within an hour it hardens to a protective shell. Now is when the magic begins...one of the transformations going on within the casing is the change of mouthparts from chewing (caterpillars chew milkweed leaves) to drinking (butterflies sip nectar through their straw-like tongue called a proboscis). Additionally, legs change, eyes change, and wings sprout. For 9-14 days the caterpillar totally transforms into a butterfly ready to take to the sky.
Butterfly (Adult: 1-4 hours after emerging can fly, 4-7 days later can mate, dies 2-6 weeks later)
When a butterfly cracks open the chrysalis, it emerges (ecloses) with wet, crumpled, and useless wings. It takes 1-4 hours for the wings to straighten, harden and dry. It is at its most vulnerable now because it is helpless and can't fly. Just 4-7 days after taking flight, butterflies are ready to mate...and start the process all over. Adult butterflies born in the summer don't migrate and live for 2-6 weeks. Those that are born at the end of summer do not mate and lay eggs. They can't survive here in the winter, so they put their energy into migrating (to Mexico) until spring when they return north to mate and lay eggs. "Winter" monarchs live 7-9 months.
For details on the Monarch's lifecycle, click here for a page from the Monarch Butterfly Fund, and here for the National Wildlife Federation's page.
Monarch camouflage—disruptive coloration and warning coloration (with Müllerian mimicry)
There are many types of camouflage in the animal kingdom, and the monarch butterfly exhibits two. You would think the black and white polka dots on a monarch's head, thorax and wing tips would draw attention to it, but it's just the opposite. The black and white dots create a disruptive coloration that acts as camouflage. The disruptive coloration breaks up the outline of the butterfly's head, making it more difficult to see.
In an opposite fashion, the bright orange attention-drawing color in the monarch's wings is a warning coloration meant to convince birds and other predators to shy away. Monarchs are toxic from their larval diet of milkweed leaves, and birds quickly learn to ignore the horrible-tasting butterflies, making the incredibly noticeable color its camouflage. Monarchs also exhibit Müllerian mimicry, where two equally toxic species mimic each other to the benefit of each, enhancing their "scare appeal!" The viceroy butterfly looks similar to a monarch but is also unpalatable. Previously, the viceroy was thought to exhibit Batesian mimicry (where butterflies not as toxic mimic the monarch for protection), but in 1991 it was proven that viceroys were just as unpalatable as monarchs, and they mimic each other for mutual protection. Click here for the article, "The viceroy butterfly is not a batesian mimic," by David B. Ritland and Lincoln P. Brower in the journal Nature, for details, or click here for an article titled, "Mutual Mimicry: Viceroy and Monarch," by Kara Rogers on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog.