Looking Inside a Chrysalis To Find More Than ‘Caterpillar Soup’

The butterfly chrysalis is a subject of study from grade school. Yet the chrysalis and the magical metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly remains an astonishing, mysterious marvel for people of all ages. When it comes to our often mundane workdays, pondering these jewel-like structures is a reminder our world is astonishing, and how it all works remains largely unknown. 

One day, a caterpillar hangs from a button of silk, and then, one of the most dramatic changes in the world takes place. For those familiar with a Monarch caterpillar, the process is alarmingly fast and dramatic. 

Suddenly, the caterpillar’s head seems to pop off, and a twisting body tears apart, revealing the amorphous green-hued chrysalis. At first, it’s undefined, like a sleeping bag that appears. However, this bag is part of the creature’s body, unlike a cocoon. After much writhing, the familiar and gorgeous structure of the chrysalis takes form before your eyes. 

For many, the process is proof that the world is full of incomprehensible magic and wonder. For some, it seems part of intelligent design, while others see it as a feat of evolution over thousands of years. And then, one considers that these delicate creatures, which weigh less than a gram, migrate for up to 3,000 miles to overwinter in Mexico; Not to mention the whole circadian clock/ antenna GPS the Monarchs have at their disposal.

See what it looks like in the video from Jefferson Lab:

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From ‘Caterpillar Soup’ in a Chrysalis to Butterfly

In as little as five days, but generally more, a Monarch caterpillar can transform and emerge as a butterfly, called eclosion. In the meantime, scientists talk about how caterpillars release enzymes, turning themselves into “caterpillar soup.” 

Similarly, scientists have long taught that all life originated from the “primordial soup,” proposed by Darwin over 150 years ago.

“Earth’s original blend of gases produced a broth of organic molecules when exposed to light and heat, eventually forming the building blocks of life in amino acids,” writes Popular Mechanics. 

Incidentally, the panspermia theory holds that microbes arrived from elsewhere via space debris. Recently, studies showing that mouse sperm survived aboard the International Space Station for nearly six years gave a boost to the idea of panspermia. Perhaps, it was a mix of primordial soup with some vital ingredients in the mix?

Whatever the case, if we look at butterflies, they don’t really arise from an amorphous goo.

Dispelling the Caterpillar Soup

What’s really going on inside the chrysalis? Surely, a butterfly doesn’t form from the primordial caterpillar soup?

Furthermore, MRI and micro-CT scanning of the chrysalis has revealed some secrets. Biologist Richard Stringer’s pioneering work dispelled the idea that caterpillars evolve from a soup. For example, by the time the chrysalis is complete, some of the butterfly organs have already formed. 

Others found that in some species, the caterpillar already has small rudimentary wings inside their bodies. However, they aren’t visible to the eye.

Also, sac-like structures called imaginal discs survive the digestive process. During metamorphosis, the discs awake from dormancy with exposure to ecdysone hormones. Notably, the caterpillar has retained these structures since forming inside the egg.

Butterfly eggs

Amazingly, each imaginal disc contains a genetic recipe for one adult body part. Thus, it needs a full set to become a butterfly.

“Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on,” writes Scientific American. 

Butterfly hatches from a Chrysalis

“In some species, these imaginal discs remain dormant throughout the caterpillar’s life; in other species, the discs begin to take the shape of adult body parts even before the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon,” they continue.

To begin with, each disc starts with a few cells, but soon, they multiply into the thousands in a short time.

Looking Inside the Chrysalis

In the late 90s, MRI scans and later CT scans peered inside chrysalids, revealing intricate developing structures from the start. As an interesting sidenote, Stringer was inspired by the scans carried out on Egyptian mummies.

“Wing development was major, of course, but everyone was blown away to see that the butterfly’s brain was visible from day one. Even before the caterpillar changes, the cellular structure precursors to different organs were evident,” writes Lancaster Online.

Chrysalis scan

Although observers will see the caterpillar’s head make a dramatic exit, the eye tissue stays and turns into the butterfly’s eyes. Another amazing find: the line of metallic gold spots on the Monarch’s chrysalis are perfect oxygen entry ports.

As the CT scans showed, intricate branching tracheal tubes distribute oxygen to the developing organs. Then, nanotechnology revealed a pumping heart.

“The heart is actually a tube that extends the length of the butterfly and has six or seven pumps along it to collect, not blood, but waste.”

After the butterfly emerges, the waste spills from the chrysalis.

Inside the Chrysalis

As scientists learn more about metamorphosis, it remains astonishing. Certainly, it’s one example of why people need to stop the current “insect apocalypse” wiping out insects worldwide. For people of all ages, the metamorphosis of a butterfly chrysalis shows how magical our world can be. If an insect can reimagine itself so completely, then it seems anything is possible. Why can’t we reimagine our world, one in which we preserve and cherish the butterflies and other essential insects?

See more from Science Insider:

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Butterflies Remembering the Caterpillar Stage

According to research, adult moths retain memories from their caterpillar stage. Now, if memories are stored in the brain, how exactly would that be possible? Do they remain somewhere in the soup or perhaps another structure?

It’s certainly mysterious, but perhaps more evidence supporting the neural transduction theory. Psychologist Robert Epstein makes a convincing argument that our brains act as bidirectional transducers, not as storage devices or computers. In other words, memories may come from another dimension, parallel universe, or “Other Side (OS).”

Thus, who knows what further study into the transfer of butterfly memories might find?

Epstein suggests modern brain scientists may “be able to create devices that send signals to a parallel universe, or, of greater interest, that receive signals from that universe. Comparative studies of animal brains, which could conceivably have limited connections to the OS, might help move the research along,” he writes.

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See similar Micro-CT chrysalis scans in the video from Slate below:

Feature images: Screenshots via YouTube and YouTube