Monarch Metamorphosis


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A newly-hatched monarch larva is pale green or grayish-white, shiny, and almost translucent. It has no stripes or other markings. The head looks black, with lighter spots around the antennae and below the mouthparts, and may be wider than the body. There is a pair of dark triangular patches between the head and front tentacles which contain setae, or hairs.

The body is covered with sparse setae. Older first instar larvae have dark stripes on a greenish background. After hatching, the larva eats its eggshell chorion.

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It then eats clusters of fine hairs on the bottom of the milkweed leaf before starting in on the leaf itself. It feeds in a circular motion, often leaving a characteristic, arc-shaped hole in the leaf. First and second instar larvae often respond to disturbance by dropping off the leaf on a silk thread, and hanging suspended in the air.

Time in this larval stage is usually days, temperature dependent. Second instar larvae have a clear pattern of black or dark brown , yellow and white bands, and the body no longer looks transparent and shiny. An excellent characteristic to use in distinguishing first and second instar larvae is a yellow triangle on the head and two sets of yellow bands around this central triangle. The triangular spots behing the head do not have the long setae present in the spots on the first instar larvae. The setae on the body are more abundant, and look shorter and more stubble-like than those on first instar larvae.

The black and yellow bands on the abdomen of a third instar larva are darker and more distinct than those of the second instar, but the bands on the thorax are still indistinct. The triangular patches behind the head are gone, and have become thin lines that extend below the spiracle. The yellow triangle on the head is larger, and the yellow stripes are more visable. The first set of thoracic legs are smaller than the other two, and is closer to the head.

Third instar larvae usually feed using a distinct cutting motion on leaf edges. Unlike first and second instar larvae, third and later instars respond to disturbance by dropping off the leaf and curling into a tight ball. Monarch biologist Fred Urquhart called this behavior "playing possum. Fourth instar larvae have a distinct banding pattern on the thorax which is not present in third instars.

The first pair of legs is even closer to the head, and there are white spots on the prolegs that were less conspicuous in the third instar. Male and female larvae can't be distinguished by the naked eye until the pupal stage. However, male and female respective reproductive organs are visible in dissected, third, fourth, and fifth instars.

The body pattern and colors of fifth instar larvae are even more vivid than they were in the fourth instar, and the black bands looks wider and almost velvety.

The front legs look much smaller than the other two pairs, and are even closer to the head. There are distinct white dots on the prolegs, and the body looks quite plump, especially just prior to pupating. Fifth instar monarch larvae often chew a shallow notch in the petiole of the leaf they are eating, which causes the leaf to fall into a vertical position. They move much farther and faster than other instars, and are often found far from milkweed plants as they seek a site for pupating.

Just before they pupate, monarch larvae spin a silk mat from which they hang upside down by their last pair of prolegs. The silk comes from the spinneret on the bottom of the head. As it sheds its skin for the last time, the caterpillar stabs a stem into the silk pad to hang. While the process of complete metamorphosis looks like four very distinct stages, continuous changes actually occur within the larva.


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The wings and other adult organs develop from tiny clusters of cells already present in the larva, and by the time the larva pupates, the major changes to the adult form have already begun. During the pupal stage this transformation is completed. Many moth caterpillars but not all spin a silken cocoon to protect them as pupae. Just before the monarchs emerge, their black, orange, and white wing patterns are visible through the pupa covering. This is not because the pupa becomes transparent; it is because the pigmentation on the scales only develops at the very end of the pupa stage. This stage of development lasts eight to fifteen days under normal summer conditions.

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The primary job of the adult stage is to reproduce—to mate and lay the eggs that will become the next generation. Monarchs do not mate until they are three to eight days old. When they mate they remain together from one afternoon until early the next morning—often up to 16 hours! Females begin laying eggs immediately after their first mating, and both sexes can mate several times during their lives. Adults in summer generations live from two to five weeks.

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Each year, the final generation of monarchs, adults that emerge in late summer and early fall, has an additional job. Here they spend the winter clustered in trees until weather and temperature conditions allow them to return to their breeding grounds. These adults can live up to nine months. Male and female monarchs can be distinguished easily. Males have a black spot on a vein on each hind wing that is not present on the female. These spots are made of specialized scales which produce a chemical used during courtship in many species of butterflies and moths, although such a chemical does not seem to be important in monarch courtship.

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The ends of the abdomens are also shaped differently in males and females, and females often look darker than males and have wider veins on their wings. I really wanted them to be monarch caterpillars. The caterpillar is striking and not hairy my son got hives from a hairy caterpillar last year so both my kids now refuse to touch any caterpillars with hair , the chrysalis is like a jewel, and the butterfly is beautiful.

I was determined and, after looking at countless images online felt I could recognize milkweed—the only food monarch caterpillars will eat. He chuckled as I looked into roadside wildflowers on our walks and in the car. I took my family on some crazy back-road drives until I found a country road with tons of milkweed…and I went searching. My family cheered me on from inside the bug-free car as I battled the mosquitos.

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Two monarch caterpillars came home with us. We set them up right in the middle of our kitchen island. It was amazing how fast they grew! We had several opportunities to watch them molt. We were in awe of how much they could consume in a day, and how much frass new vocabulary word for my son to avoid the common word for it they could make. I found that keeping the stems in a small jar of water kept the leaves fresh enough to last a few days, since I had to drive to get leaves for them. One morning I woke up to this and had to go get more leaves before everyone was even out of bed!

We watched with excitement but ended up missing the moment of transformation into a chrysalis! Tech Support my husband saved the day. He reminded me that the fancy camera he bought me can do time lapse photography, so we set it up to take photos all night long just in case. The caterpillar was still hanging in a J-shape the next morning so we set ourselves up to provide constant surveillance.

In fact, I may be taking time lapse photos of everything from science experiments to the cat napping. We made sure one of us had our eyes on it the whole time. Finally my daughter yelled and we witnessed the amazing transformation of this black, yellow, and white caterpillar with legs and antennae to a pale green chrysalis with a completely different shape. If you are interested here is my first amateur attempt at time-lapse photography:. We were amazed at the transformation, and how much the early pupae moved about to shed the old skin and attain its final form.

By the end it was a smooth, lovely shade of green.

Monarch metamorphosis

My favorite part are the markings that look like drops of gold paint. Truly amazing. So now we anxiously await our butterflies. We think of Big Guy and Little Guy just under that green covering, preparing to become creatures that can fly. The transformation takes days. Be sure to visit her site for nature study ideas, and watch for her blog carnival to see all the amazing summer nature study happening.

I was so hoping as I read along that you captured it for us to see with your time lapse and then there it was!

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Thank for sharing that we us all…our family has never raised monarchs so this was a fantastic way to see the process. You definitely get the determined mama award this month for finding those caterpillars! Then the diligence to keep them fed…you are awesome. How wonderful!! This is a great story. Your pictures are awesome. I love the time lapse.


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