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Monday, July 16, 2018

The Beast and the Beauty: The quiet, beautiful metamorphosis of the caterpillar

Happily, for the most part, the butterfly flexes its wings for an hour or so, and then it is away — erratic, flipsy-flopsy — a beauty born out of a beast.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Updated: February 8, 2015 1:00:29 am
The beauty: Butterfly (Source: Ranjit Lal) The beauty: Butterfly (Source: Ranjit Lal)

How the heck did nature think up such a devious survival plan? A beautiful flipsy-flopsy, nectar-sipping insect skips low over a plant, and deposits tiny pearl like eggs on the underside of its leaves and dances away. After a while, the eggs hatch and the tiny creature that wriggles out consumes the eggshell, for nothing must be wasted. Then it sets to demolishing the leaf it was born on, followed by the ones next to it. Its serrated jaws saw up and down along the edges of the leaf or make great holes in it — lean your ear close and you can actually hear them rasp. Tirelessly. Insatiably. And yet, so fussy that if you offer it something else to eat, apart from the plant it was born on, it would rather starve.

Naturally, it bloats up rapidly and grossly. Gastronomic orgies are interrupted by brief interludes of quiet digestion (and burping, one would imagine, though I’ve never heard any) and introspection. It begins to feel tight in its skin, so, it simply takes it off. Waiting underneath is a new, pliable one. It might do this, five or six times, getting heftier every time. In appearance, it may be nondescript — brown or green — or jazzily bizarre — with kaleidoscopic patterns and colours, and festooned with ferocious porcupine spines. The message? Keep off, I taste bad and may poison you.

Inside, there are more miracles waiting for their cues. The caterpillar cells, unlike the cells of most growing life forms, do not multiply as the insect feasts: they simply increase in bulk, to maybe a thousand times of their original size. But hidden away in its body, in dense clusters, are other sleeper cells, lying doggo like commandos, waiting, biding their time. Cells which contain the blueprint of the beauty which will soon consume the beast.

And then, after perhaps a week of bingeing, the eating stops. After profligacy, it’s time for penance. The caterpillar hitches itself to a twig, sheds its skin one last time to reveal a chrysalis or pupa beneath, which is slung on the twig with silk. Like a yogic hermit, it now takes a vow of stillness (apart from the odd mad twitch) and starvation. But inside, a churning has begun — the obese caterpillar cells break down into a nourishing soup, and empowered by these, the sleeper cells swing into action. They contain the blueprint of the parts of the butterfly — the watch-spring proboscis, the big velvet eyes, the slender legs, the gorgeous wings and furry body. Now these begin taking shape.

It may take a week or more, depending on the season. The chrysalis, cryptically coloured usually, begins to dry out so that the insect is visible inside: rolled up tightly as a Brit’s brolly. And then, early one morning, the dry husk of the chrysalis splits and the freshly minted butterfly crawls out like a tired canoeist unfolding from a kayak. It staggers to a perch and unfolds its crumpled wings, hanging them down. Even now, a time bomb is ticking. Blood is pumped into the delicate fretwork of the wings, enabling them to spread out. And then, as the wings dry and stiffen, they are withdrawn back into the insect’s body. But if the wings now snag on a twig or leaf and are unable to unfurl, they will stiffen up curled and crumpled, leaving the insect crippled and unable to fly — ever. No life for a butterfly — even nature trips up sometimes.

Happily, for the most part, the butterfly flexes its wings for an hour or so, and then it is away — erratic, flipsy-flopsy — a beauty born out of a beast.

We do that too, only the other way around…

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher

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