Monday, July 18, 2011

A Jekyll & Hyde moment...

Note: Apologies to anyone that has recieved e.mail notification of an old entry from January, I have no clue as to why blogger decided to re-send this old posting
                                                                                                      Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his novel of dual personality in 1886 and although the struggle in this case was between good and evil, it's what sprung to mind whilst watching one of the most extraordinary transformations I have been lucky enough to witness thus far. 

Nature has always enthralled and enthused me with its seemingly, unending secrets. Like the universe we all inhabit, it holds many mysteries that only reveal themselves by virtue of putting in the time and effort to discover what may have been there all along, for millennia, most likely, but have remained hidden to all but those that actively seek them out.

If that's sounds a little pious or even sanctimonious it's not meant to, I'm just trying to express my thoughts as to how we can all see nature's hidden secrets but you do need eyes and mind wide-open. You will miss so much by rushing through the countryside on a route march. Take your time and let nature infuse you with it's bounty!

Acclaimed singer/songwriter Yusuf Islam wrote "Maybe there's a world that I've still to find?" 

Preamble over, I'll get to the nub of this blog entry; in essence it's all about time spent observing what is no doubt a common enough occurrence and will take place hundreds, if not thousands of times a year up and down the country. 
And yet... how many will have been privileged enough to have witnessed it first-hand?

The Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly just like all butterflies and moths has four main stages of life; Egg (Embryo)-Larva-Pupa-Adult (Imago), it is the third stage that I am dedicating this blog entry to, the pupa; or to be more precise, following the progress of a larva as it changes into a pupa.

To try and build a timeline and also condense this into a blog-sized tale, I'm posting a few shots that are not best quality being stills that I've cribbed from the main movie but do illustrate how the sequence all began.
After watching the larva feeding itself in preparation for what follows, at around 5.15pm on Saturday evening I saw that it had attached itself to a stem of the nettle plant it had been calling home for the past few weeks. 
Once attached safely, it curled up into the position you see in the above photograph.

Four hours later, the only real change was that the larva had begun to uncurl itself a little. It was still almost motionless and remained so for quite a while.

'Quite a while' became in reality 17 hours. At around 2pm on Sunday the larva seemed to be head-down at an almost vertical position and had started to twitch a little.

It was at this point the transformation proper seemed to be under-way.The first short clip I'm posting shows how much movement had begun inside the larva.

Click on the arrow to start movie clip
(E.mail subsribers: You will only be able to view the movie by visiting the blog. It will not show in an email.)

Eventually the movement became more and more exaggerated  and pronounced with what appeared to be contractions and almost convulsions, as the pupa struggled to free itself from the larva.

Click on the arrow to start movie clip
(E.mail subsribers: You will only be able to view the movie by visiting the blog. It will not show in an email.)

It did feel like the struggle between Jekyll & Hyde with the larva starting to sway with the force of a completely different being trying to emerge from within.

Although I was captivated by what was happening here, I began to feel like an expectant father; willing it on with every contraction, even shouting "C'mon...push!" at one point. It did seem to be having some difficulty with emerging. Not as much difficulty as I was experiencing with trying to make sense of just what was happening. I was unable to fathom just how it was possible for something to become a completely different 'thing' in such a short space of time.

Sir David Attenborough even struggled to find the words to describe this momentous quirk of nature. He described it as a stage in a butterfly's life when it does not feed and in which the larval body is broken down into a kind of thick soup.
Clusters of cells survive this breakdown and then fed by the 'soup' they start to grow and multiply, eventually developing into the adult insect. 

And so here's the main course today.....the full movie of the whole event. It was filmed (videoed?) on my little Panasonic Lumix camera and so the focus isn't spot on at all times, as you would expect. But it does capture a magical 8 minutes; probably one of the best 8 minutes I've ever spent in fact... 

Click on the arrow to start movie clip
(E.mail subsribers: You will only be able to view the movie by visiting the blog. It will not show in an email.)

Watching this unfold was a real education for me. Something I didn't ever expect to see and will probably now never forget. It is these little things in life that we take for granted, often not even stopping to consider how!

Watch closely the very end of the movie and notice how the emerged pupa twists and turns until it frees itself from the larval skin that eventually drops to the ground. Not only is it spinning around, but it turns in alternate clockwise and anti-clockwise directions.

For those of you who don't feel you want to watch the whole 8 minutes, there's a high-speed version that I've included too. I won't be expecting anyone to use this version though. You'll all be interested enough to want to see the full monty right? Don't you touch that button! .....leave it!

Click on the arrow to start movie clip
(E.mail subsribers: You will only be able to view the movie by visiting the blog. It will not show in an email.)

Another surprising thing to me was just how much detail is visible at this early stage. After all the pupa will be another few weeks before it's ready to split open and reveal the adult insect.

Using Sir David's analogy of the 'soup' I was struck by being able to make out both the eye socket and the antennae detail already formed. The following is another still from the movie and I've enlarged this one so that you can see exactly what I mean.

The whole thing once fully emerged looked like this....

After a couple of hours drying out and hardening it looked like this...

By this morning (Monday) it had taken on a wonderful golden tone that this following photo doesn't really do justice to. It looked like it had been painted gold.

And so that my friends is where this marvellous story ends. Or does it? Will I become luckier yet and capture the adult butterfly as it emerges in a few weeks time? I'll try my best but don't hold your collective breath!

Until the next time then...


  1. Brilliant post J.J. The movies are stunning! Thanks for having the patience to capture this and publish it. M

  2. Hey! Thanks Martin. I just wish that I didn't have to use the 'blogger' video uploader. It is very basic and there's no choice of size. You can view full-screen of course but the problem with that is the uploader has already resized/compressed the original and so it's no longer good quality viewed large.
    Not to worry, perhaps I'll put a copy on YouTube as well.


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