Friday, June 25, 2010

The Caterpillar Chronicles: Part 2 ~ And He Has Just Settled Down For A Long Summer's Nap

Black swallowtail caterpillar, a fennel eating machine.
(Click pictures to enlarge)

"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty." ~ Maya Angelou
See Part One: What A Difference A Day Makes

For the purposes of this post the caterpillar will be considered a "he" although I really haven't mastered the fine art of determining the sex of caterpillars, nor will I likely ever do so. Also, after my first post on the subject received no comments, I wonder if there isn't an underlying aversion to these creatures in most of the readers here. I know that many of these caterpillars are not the most beautiful things, some are hairy and spiny; even the beautiful tiger swallowtail butterfly has a caterpillar that looks like a big green monster with big black eyes. But we must remember that they have a purpose and a dedication to that purpose that most of us could afford to emulate at times.

An eating and pooping machine

So, here he is all tucked safely in his new home. I might as well not have had the screen mesh around the box, he had no interest in anything but eating. Many of us could only hope to have children that eat their vegetables as well as this fellow does. He left nothing behind and worked his way through the delicate thread-like leaves from bottom to top and then from top to bottom. In addition to his favorite fennel, I put in parsley, but he never strayed from the fennel. The caterpillar grew exponentially, almost a half centimeter a day. I really don't know how many times he shed his outer skin... the book says that they shed, then consume it... so he must have done so at night when we weren't watching.

The beginning of the pupal phase... choosing a sleeping place.

Of course, consuming so much food means only one thing.... poop. Tiny little black circlets of odorless black poop. They almost look like little seed beads with the tiny round hole in the middle of each one. These caterpillars have two yellow knobs that will protrude from their heads if they are disturbed... I disturbed him, accidentally. They say these give off a bad odor, but I couldn't smell it if they did (an advantage of formalin fried olfactory receptors). I wasn't prepared for this event and didn't get a picture. I say all this to disclose that I really don't know if the poop smells or not... the book says it doesn't... but hey... I have to have my nose buried deep in a gardenia to smell what my mom can smell standing six feet away from the bush, so what do I know.

Anyway, last week he ate and pooped and grew.. and grew... and grew.. until he did make the required 4 to 4.5 cm length and almost a centimeter in diameter. On Saturday, the 19th, I noticed a large quarter sized round patch of a more liquid (to put it as delicate as possible) poop. He looked drawn and smaller and I quickly ran to the computer to see if he was dying... and in a sense, he was. When it is time to enter the pupal phase the caterpillar choses a place to form the chrysalis, quits eating and empties the contents of his digestive tract completely. I had sticks available, but even at this time he could not think of leaving his fennel behind.

First he attached himself with a sticky substance to the fennel stalk at the hind end.... I noticed the small space between his body and the fennel and watched until I could see the single attachment. I have since, propped up the fennel and hopefully it will remain strong enough for the duration.

The final skin shedding to reveal.......

Monday morning, I saw a split in the upper part of his skin and for the first time in two days he was moving... not the slow motion of eating, but a wriggling, writhing motion. So I got my camera and it was a good thing I acted as this big change took only five minutes from start to finish. As he wriggled, the skin split and wrinkled up and slid towards the attachment point. There it bunched in a wad and fell to the bottom of the box. This revealed......

The chrysalis... Posted by Picasa

.....the chrysalis. Apparently, if he chooses to attach to a brown twig or limb, then the chrysalis will be brown. If the attachment is a green stem, then the chrysalis is green. Isn't it alien looking? I think you can make out the outline of rudimentary wings and the long antennae folded down. As soon as the final shedding finished, he rested... completely still, no motion and to the eye, so far, no real change. In nine to twelve days we should have a beautiful black swallowtail butterfly trying to emerge.... until then... we wait.

(end of post)

Friday's Ark


kenju said...

They are all beautiful, even when they are repulsive looking (as some are). I look forward to seeing what comes out!

Beverly said...

Such a wonderful description of your caterpillar here.  I look forward too to seeing the end product.

We have oleander bushes here in Floridea, and they get the ugliest caterpillars on them.  When I was in first grade, I rode the bus to school, and at the bus stop there were oleander bushes.  The mean old boys would take them off the bushes and throw them at us girls.  To this day, I would never have an oleander bush anywhere near my house.

When I lived in Haiti, tourists would come and ooh and aah over the pretty oleander bushes, and I can only think of those days in first grade.

Omnibus Driver said...

That is just so cool.  (I heart your blog.) 

utenzi said...

I love that last picture and the first struck me as something out of Alice and the Looking Glass. What a scary but fantastic image. said...

this is totaly amazing and he/she is beautiful. only God could create such as this. I love the photos and the story. my post today is on the zebra long wing. i have several post about caterpillars of the gulf fritterary. my back yard is full of them, clouds of orange. I have giant swallowtail, spicebush swallotail, red admiral, zerbra long wing and a couple I have no idea. that first photo and the last are stunning