by Michael Ellis

A teacher friend of mine used to tell kids to imagine a gopher snake living for a year eating nothing but rats and mice and growing and growing and growing. Then suddenly it goes down into a burrow, rolls up into a tight ball and then flies out as a red-tailed hawk! Oh man, they groan, that would never happen. And then he tells them the miracle of butterflies and moths.

During those warm winter days in early February and I saw several Mourning Cloaks flitting around the forest floor. These medium size butterflies have rich dark brown wings bounded by a cream-colored outer edge with striking blue spots. Widely distributed in the northern hemisphere, they are found throughout Europe and Asia. Their dark color absorbs the sunlight readily, heating the insect, and hence they are one of the earliest butterflies to emerge and they can survive at the higher latitudes.

The adults feed on the sap of oak trees; the larva or caterpillar eat mostly willows. The word, caterpillar, was introduced into the English language when the Normans invaded Britain in 1066. Caterpillar is corrupted from an old French word “chat pillose,” which literally means” hairy cat.” This apparently once common name for caterpillars is no longer used in France but has been replaced by the modern French word – chenille. This word is now also used to describe soft fabric.

Half the cells of caterpillars are undifferentiated; they have no function, yet. Caterpillars are mostly gut; they eat leaves, poop, grow, shed their skin, and rest a lot. Basically acting a lot like human teenagers. Finally after the last molt they enter the pupae stage, wrap themselves up into a cocoon and chemically transform. Nearly all their cells turn into a gooey mass and then are rearranged into legs, wings, thorax, head, abdomen and then they emerge, dry their wings, fly away, eat nectar, mate and die. Incredible story and it’s easy to see why this remarkable metamorphosis has been a metaphor for so many human myths.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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August 6, 2009