Thursday, August 27, 2015

Monarch butterfly—from chrysalis to flight...

In a post earlier this summer, I mentioned a monarch butterfly had found our little milkweed stand. I had hoped she would return and lay an egg...and she did! She (and maybe a few of her sisters) laid many eggs. We've counted 11 caterpillars so far in our backyard monarch nursery, and the first went from chrysalis to flight Tuesday afternoon...

You can see the butterfly curled inside the clear case. Just days earlier, the pupa was a light green. Metamorphosis occurs in 9-14 days.
When the caterpillar first forms a chrysalis, it is a light jade green. After about 9 days, it starts to darken until finally it is crystal clear and you can see the butterfly locked inside. When you see the Monarch's orange and black wings clearly through the pupal case, get ready to welcome a butterfly into the world. (Our butterfly emerged about 10 minutes after I took this photo.)

Dangling from the spent chrysalis, the newly born butterfly dangles to let the wings dry and expand.
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.

A close-up of the pupal case.
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. 

In this photo you can see the chrysalis on the left side and the butterfly on the right.
As the wings straighten out and harden, the butterfly starts to climb higher and away from the spent chrysalis (12:21 p.m.). 

a straight-on photo of the butterfly. Her black and white polka dots stand out.
Our new monarch butterfly hangs from a milkweed leaf clearly chewed and eaten away by a monarch caterpillar (maybe by her two weeks earlier).

A Monarch butterfly has orange wings with heavy black lines like stained glass...all accented with black and white polka dots!
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. 

The baby monarch's wings are now strong enough to open, and we get to see the deep orange color.
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.

Black and white polka dots act as disruptive camouflage for the butterfly.
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 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.

Prequel...the caterpillar!
If you want to see a monarch caterpillar, click here for the prequel to this post.


Rick Forrestal said...

This is such a fantastic post.
Great macro work, video and background.
Thanks so much for sharing.

sandy said...

wow so informative and great pics. I have gone to the central coast, ca where there is a monarch butterfly grove - near Pismo - ...and then this last year went over to Lake Arrowhead a close mountain town to where I am and saw them up close on a beautiful bush - both happened in the fall here on the west coast.

Kim at said...

Great job on the video, Kelly! I loved it! I need to get my post up about the release of my first Monarch too....time flies when you're raising a bunch of butterflies, lol.

Spare Parts and Pics said...

Wonderful post, and great macro photos!!

Steve Borichevsky said...


Kathy A. Johnson said...

How interesting, and what a cool experience to watch your butterfly's first flight. Great pictures and video, too.

Mary Ann Gieszelmann said...

What a wonderful series of photos, Kelly! Thank you so much.

Kelly said...

@Rick - Thanks, Rick! The Monarch made it easy. Those colors and patterns are fantastic! :-) I do have bruises and scratches all over my arms from hanging on the side of our deck. I bet I was a sight!!!

@Sandy - Thanks! Wow...I would love to see that some day. It must be unbelievable to see all the butterflies concentrated in one place.

@Kim - Thank you, Kim! Hahaha...I can't wait to see you post.

@Spare Parts - Thank you!! I'm so glad I spotted the chrysalis. It was the first time I saw the progression in person.

@Steve - Thank you, Steve!! :-)

@Kathy - was totally cool. I'm so glad I was home from work on Tuesday and had the whole day to watch her.

@Mary Ann - Thanks, Mary Ann! I keep looking for another chrysalis, but so far the caterpillars are still eating, and eating, and eating!!

Elaine said...

Fascinating, Kelly! Living so far away from the Monarch's territory I really enjoyed seeing the process. Wonderful photography too--well worth a scratch or two. I haven't been blogging for a couple of months and quickly scanned through your summer posts. I'll have to come back when I have more time and spend a little time in your world.

Ana Mínguez Corella said...

Hi Kelly.. Beautiful series os pics of this fantastic butterfly.. Regards..

Cindy L said...

Excellent! I raised and released about 15 monarch's this summer. My first try at it. It's actually easy (and amazing!) if you have milkweed available for them hungry cats!

More at:

Great Pics!

Kelly said...

@Elaine - welcome back! I bet you're getting ready for the Alaskan winter ahead. Can't wait to see some of those snow photos! :-)

@Ana - Thank you! :-)

@Cindy - wow...15! That's so cool. I'll visit your site to see. Thanks for the link.

Roy Norris said...

A beautiful butterfly Kelly.
You won't believe that there has been the odd sighting of a Monarch on the Southern English coast in recent years.

Kelly said...

...that is so cool, Roy! They can fly, fly, fly!