Sunday, August 24, 2008

Poor Literacy Skills and Mathematical Ability in Butterflies

Black Swallowtail Butterfly wing scales

I’ve never written an article for a scientific journal or, for that matter, any other serious piece of literature, but from time to time, the discoveries made in my laboratory (the kitchen table) seem worthy of mention.

Take, for example, the Black Swallowtail chrysalis I had been watching for 13 days, every morning noting color changes, as it hung suspended from a vase of flowers in the center of the table. For much of the 2-week span, I had returned it to a spot in my garden, hoping the humidity and temperature outdoors would be most like its natural setting. Only at day 9, did I bring it indoors, and prepare to capture the emergence with my camera.

The internet is full of caterpillar raising guidelines, a manual of sorts, as the metamorphosis of Black Swallowtails is both educational and inspiring to witness. And my hope to catch it “live,” on a weekend day while I would be home, seemed realistic. By the end of last week, the chrysalis had begun to darken.

Timing is everything.
And being prepared to record an extraordinary event meant a little more homework and a plan.

Consulting the manual, I learned that once the color had changed from brown or, in my case, green to black, the emergence would soon follow. Behind the now translucent cover, the details of the large black butterfly within had become visible.

Before bed last evening, I recharged the battery, cleaned the lens, and chose a spot outdoors with good light. The forecast for the next morning was perfect.
I would easily be ready by 10:00 am—the time most butterflies emerge.

We wake early, and enjoy fresh coffee at the kitchen table and laptops until sunrise. The darkened room makes photo editing easy—a quiet world, less distracting. In the center of it all, the chrysalis, still black, just inches beyond my open screen. Camera, at my side, I watched. With every warm sip, I waited, becoming increasingly convinced that all accounts of a 10:00 arrival would be, indeed, accurate.

One last check of email, just a minute’s lapse…
And I missed it.
8:15 am--the most important moment in his life.

I have concluded that this demonstrates one or both of these possibilities:
1. Butterflies cannot read.
2. Butterflies cannot tell time.

All photos enlarge with a click

Newly emerged Black Swallowtail on Ironweed

Empty Black Swallowtail chrysalis

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Lisa at Greenbow said...

It may be disappointing to you that you didn't see the initial emergance but you did a great job capturing the rest of the show.

Lynne said...

EVEN IF you missed the emergence- this is spectacular!

swamp4me said...

You know, don't you, that the little sucker was watching you through that translucent case, just waiting for you to turn your eyes away...
Bummer that you didn't get to see the actual emergence, but what a great job you did with the pictures!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Swampie - this was intentional. Just like all those birds who outwait us before fledging.

Seriously great photos, Nina.

KatDoc said...

This happened to me once, waiting for a mare to deliver. I checked her every hour until 10pm, then every half hour till midnight, then every 15 minutes. Between one check and the next, the foal was delivered, standing, and nursing. I swore she held it in when she heard my footsteps and waited till I walked away for the final push.

Great story and photos, as usual, Nina.


Wanderin' Weeta said...

Wow! Great photos!

You missed the third possibility, though:

3. They know very well what you're up to. And they're having none of it.

(I've been trying to photograph a family of finches all day. So I'm starting to believe there is a conspiracy to cut us out of the loop.

And now, the finches are back. There is one perched a few feet from my desk. I will now reach for the camera, turn it on, and ... he's gone. Proof!)


KGMom said...

Wow--Nina--talk about patience. I mean, even if you missed the emergence, you are one patient nature observer.
My encounter with a black swallowtail was completely by circumstance. If I had a chrysalis, I would be saying--ALRIGHT ALREADY come out!

Cicero Sings said...

Such great photos ... I somehow don't feel TOO sorry for you missing the absolute main event! Smile. But I sure know how you feel.

Rambling Woods said...

It was because of this that I wanted to bring in a luna moth cat that I found. Hubby convinced me that it would do better outside..but I really, really wanted to bring it in. Beautiful photos...

Anonymous said...

Interesting article and you've captured pictures of the butterfly very nicely :)

Pam said...

Wonderful photos!

bobbie said...

Oh yes! They know! And they wait.

Your pictures are fantastic!

JColby said...

These are some incredibly beautiful photos.

What kind of camera are you using?

I am a novice photographer and looking to get more involved in nature photography.

Gallicissa said...

Terrific sequence, Nina. I read your conclusions with a smile.

Julie Zickefoose said...

As one who carried an about-to-emerge monarch chrysalis around in her left hand all one morning, then stashed it in a cup and turned around to take toast out of the toaster, only to find the butterfly hanging, I can fully sympathize.

I heard this sort of wet Plup! and boom, there it was.

so the chances of your catching the actual drop were probably slim to start with if black swallowtails simply plop out of the chrysalis the way monarchs do.

These photos are terrific!!