Lepidoptera Facts Butterfly And Moth Pupa Or Chrysalis
As soon as the last moult of the caterpillar is over, the chrysalis that had already been developing under the cover of the old skin is exposed to full view; and although the perfect insect is not to be liberated for some time to come, yet some of its parts are apparently fully formed.
The newly exposed skin of the chrysalis is very soft and moist, but as it hardens it forms a membranous or horny covering that protects and holds firmly in place the trunk and the various limbs and appendages that are distinctly to be traced on the under surface.
If, however, you examine a chrysalis directly after the moult is over, you will often find that the wings, antenna, proboscis, and legs of the future butterfly can be easily separated from the trunk of the body on which they lie by means of a blunt needle, and can be spread out so as to be quite free from that surface.
In form the chrysalides of butterflies and moths are as variable as the caterpillars. Many of the former are sharply angular like that of the ‘Small Tortoiseshell’ already mentioned; but some of the butterflies-the Skippers have smooth and tapering chrysalides, and so have most of the moths.
In colour they are equally variable. Some are beautifully tinted with delicate shades of green, some spotted on a light ground, some striped with bands more or less gaudy and distinct, but the prevailing tint, especially among the moths, is a reddish brown, often so deep that it is almost a black.
As a rule there is no marked resemblance between the different stages of the same insect. Thus, a brilliantly coloured caterpillar may change to a dull and unattractive chrysalis, from which may emerge a butterfly or moth that partakes of the colours of neither. But in a few cases there are colours or other features that remain persistent throughout the three stages, or show themselves prominently in two.
An interesting example in point is that of the Magpie or Currant Moth. The caterpillar of this moth is cream-coloured, with orange stripes along the sides, and very bold black markings down the back. The chrysalis, which is at first entirely yellow, afterwards turns black with the exception of some yellow transverse bands. Then, the moth exhibits the same colours as these two earlier stages, with the same degree of boldness; for its pale cream-coloured wings, tinted with patches of yellow, are marked with numerous deep black spots. Thus, in this case, we find the same general character of the colouring throughout the insect’s existence.
Another interesting example, though not so striking as the last, is to be found in the case of a group of moths known as the Liparida. The caterpillars of these are remarkable for their very hairy bodies, often ornamented by several bold brush-like tufts. The chrysalides are also hairy; and several of the moths themselves are not only thickly clad with shaggy hair, but a bold tuft often tips the abdomen.
We must not leave these few remarks on the characters of chrysalides without a mention of the brilliant spots of burnished gold that decorate the pupa of certain butterflies. This is the feature that led to the invention of the term chrysalis, which is derived from the Greek word chrysos, meaning gold. For the same reason the term aurelia has been applied to the pupa of Lepidoptera, this being derived from aurum-the Latin name for gold.
Strictly, then, these two terms apply only to the pupa of a certain number of the butterflies; but the former is now generally used to designate the pupa of all the Lepidoptera, and is even extended to the corresponding stages of insects of other orders.
If you examine one of these gold-speckled chrysalides, the brilliant metallic lustre seems to belong to the outer surface, just as if certain spots had been tipped with real gold; but after the butterfly has quitted its case the beautiful golden spots are gone. This proves that the metallic appearance is not due to reflection from the outer surface of the chrysalis, but to a reflection from some structure beneath it. This latter is a very thin membrane which lies just under the outer transparent covering of the chrysalis.
The period during which the Lepidoptera remain in the chrysalis state varies very considerably in different species, and also depends more or less on the temperature. As a rule, when a caterpillar pupates before the end of the summer, it remains dormant in the pupal condition for only a few weeks; but, if late in the summer or in the autumn, it remains in this condition throughout the winter, and emerges in the following spring or early summer.
Both these conditions are illustrated in the life history of the Large White or Cabbage Butterfly-an insect with which we have already become acquainted. We get two distinct broods of this butterfly every year, the first appearing in May and the second in August. The eggs of the first brood hatch in about a fortnight, and the larva are full grown about four weeks later. These then change to chrysalides, from which the perfect insects (the second brood) emerge in a few weeks-the period varying slightly with the temperature of the season. From the eggs of this second brood we get another invading army of cabbage eaters that change to pupa late in the summer. These remain dormant till the following April, and may be found in numbers throughout the winter, attached to the walls and fences of kitchen and market gardens.
If, then, the pupa of the same species are so influenced by the temperatures of the seasons, can we limit or prolong the period of quiescence by subjecting them to high or low temperatures artificially produced? Most certainly we can; and every practical entomologist knows how to obtain the perfect butterflies and moths of certain species long before their appointed times, or, if he desires it, to compel them to remain in their dormant stage long after the natural period has terminated.
Sometimes an enthusiastic insect hunter obtains a large number of what we may term ‘winter pupa,’ by collecting and breeding various species. He also anticipates a number of successful captures of perfect insects during the following summer. Thus, from two distinct sources, he obtains a goodly assortment of butterflies and moths, the setting, preserving, and arranging of which entails an immense amount of home work.
Under such circumstances he will sometimes endeavour to cause some of his pupa to emerge before their accustomed time, so that he may get some of his insects ‘on the boards’ before his field work is in full swing, and so avoid a rush, or prevent the loss of insects that will be spoiled before he has time to take them in hand.
This process of hurrying up his pupa he calls ‘forcing,’ and simply consists in keeping them for a time in a warm room or hothouse where the high temperature is pretty constant.
On the other hand, the entomologist may desire to try the effect of a continued low temperature on his pupa. This he can do by placing his pupa in an ice house. Such experiments have often been performed, and the results are very interesting. In some cases the emergence of the perfect insect has been delayed for many months, and even years; and then, after an exposure to a normal temperature lasting only a week or two, the winged insect has made its appearance just as if nothing unusual had happened.
Such are the effects of extreme temperatures on the duration of the chrysalis state; and we naturally infer, from such results, that the pupa under natural conditions is influenced, though in a lesser degree, by the variations experienced with the seasons, especially in such a fickle climate as our own.
The insect hunter has always to bear this in mind, and particularly so when he sets out on a search for certain desired species. Suppose, for example, he has set his mind on the capture of a certain butterfly that usually appears in the first week in May. Before finally naming the day, he has to consider what the weather has been during the last few weeks, and if he finds that this has been much warmer than the average for the corresponding periods in the past, he selects a day in April, earlier or later according to the difference between the present season and the average.
If he does not pay due attention to such considerations, he will sometimes find that all the insects netted are shabby and much worn, even though, under average conditions, he would be catching newly emerged and brilliant specimens. This, then, will explain how it is that we so often see in entomologists’ periodicals startling accounts of ‘early captures,’ and of the appearance of certain insects late in the season that ought not to have emerged till the following summer.
I will give just one illustration of these variations. The beautiful Orange Tip Butterfly (Plate I, fig. 7) generally appears about the middle of May in the southern counties. Farther north it is of course a little later. In the north of England it has been taken in June; and in Scotland as late as July. On the other hand, I have taken it in Gloucestershire as early as March, on a rather bleak day with a cold east wind; and, withal, in a field on the slope of the Cotswolds fully exposed to the unfavourable breeze; but it was evident that, in this case, the butterfly had been enticed from its winter quarters by the milder weather of the few previous weeks.
It may be as well, in passing, to observe that it is not only the pupa that is influenced by temperature. The hatching of eggs may be forced by high temperatures, or be retarded by exposure to cold; and in nature the period of incubation varies with the seasons. The larva, too, grow faster or more slowly, or pupate earlier or later from similar causes. And so no very definite date or period can be assigned to any one stage of any insect.
Now let us return to one of the chrysalides that we have already watched through the earlier stages of its existence, and follow it in its future development.
It is now, as we say, in its quiescent or dormant condition, but we must not suppose that it is always in a profound sleep, nor can we say that it is insensible to its surroundings. Touch it gently or surprise it with a puff of air from your mouth, and it will begin to wag its pointed tail, sometimes with such vigour as to send the body rolling round and round in its box. Lay it on a bed of cocoa-nut fibre or finely sifted soil and let it remain quite undisturbed for a few hours or days, and you will probably find that, by occasional movements of its body, it has made a slight depression in its bed, and lies partly submerged. I have known some chrysalides to completely bury themselves in this way during the course of a day or two, and others to partly expose themselves after having been lightly covered. Others again, I have observed, will move smartly if a strong light is suddenly turned on them. Many, too, certainly appear to have a strong objection to exposure to the direct rays of a hot sun; for, when thus exposed, they will struggle persistently, as if to work their bodies into some shady corner. I would not advise a young entomologist to try this experiment, however, if he values the pupa he possesses, for direct sunlight is undoubtedly very harmful to many species, and perhaps it is to all.
Some chrysalides are not nearly so active as has just been represented; in fact, there are many which seem to show no signs of life during the greater part of the time spent in that state. But in all, whether apparently active or not, certain important internal changes are at work. We have already noticed that, even in the last days of the larval existence, some of the organs of the future imago are to be traced. But these are as yet imperfectly developed. We have also observed that a continuation of these changes, gradually carried on, would be impossible in a voracious feeder; so the insect, now fully grown, and no longer requiring a supply of food, settles down in perfect quiet, submitting itself quite passively to any further changes that nature may demand.
It has already suffered the loss of its claspers. Its wonderful jaws that did so much damage (for good or evil as the case may be) to the vegetable world are now gone, and the bulky digestive apparatus has rapidly dwindled to useless dimensions. These and other changes, already in progress, have to be perfected while the creature is in a restful and helpless condition, though they may often be retarded or even suspended during cold weather when progress would certainly bring it to an untimely end.
But now the grandest of all these transformation scenes is nigh at hand. The protective skin is already loosening from the almost perfect imago, and consequently feels softer and far more yielding than it did when in close contact with the body: the swaddled butterfly or moth (for such the pupa is) is slowly preparing to throw off its imprisoning garb. The wings and large compound eyes are assuming their final colours, which now begin to show themselves through the more or less transparent skin, and the long legs, the perfectly formed antenna, and the slender proboscis, all of which are folded closely under the creature’s thorax, now begin to move within their loosened sheaths.
Now let us watch it closely, for one of the most wonderful sights ever witnessed by a naturalist is about to be presented to our view. We think we can observe slight movements; and, it may be, we can actually see the struggling insect endeavouring to set itself free. The legs and proboscis are moving within the loosened skin; and lo! as we watch these motions, the prison wall bursts with a slight snapping noise (at least, such is the case with some of the larger species), and in a moment out pop a few long legs which immediately struggle for a foothold. The proboscis also appears, alternately lengthening itself out and coiling into a spiral, as if impatient to reach the sweet nectar from the bottom of some fragrant flower cup.
All this takes place in less time than one requires to describe it; and, before many seconds have passed, the struggling insect has quite completed its last moult, and is bidding good-bye to the rent garment that has done it good service for so long a time.
But how dreadfully disappointing! Did we not say only a few minutes since, that a beautiful butterfly or moth was about to emerge? How, then, is this? Here is an odd-looking creature, such as we have never seen before! True, it has the right kind of body, though even that is so soft and heavy that it is fairly dragged along as the insect walks. Its antenna, too, seem to be just the right thing-that is, just what we were expecting to see. But oh! the wings! Are we looking at a deformity?-a failure on the part of Nature to produce what she ought?
We will not judge hastily, but continue to watch it a little longer. It seems very restless at first, and, with the fluttering apologies for wings, drags its heavy body along till it reaches some surface up which it can climb. If nothing of the kind is close at hand you may place a rough upright stick in its path, and it will immediately begin to ascend. Its motto is now ‘Excelsior!’ and its ambition to rise may be so great that, on reaching the very top of the stick provided for it, it struggles for a still higher position in life till, failing to get a foothold in the air itself, it falls to the ground and has to retrace its steps.
I once thought I would like to test the perseverance of a large moth in performing its first upward journey; and as it was one from a chrysalis to be found in nature at the foot of a tree that attains some considerable height, I was, of course, prepared to exercise a little patience myself.
As soon as the moth had emerged, I placed it at the bottom of a window curtain that hung from about eight feet high to the floor. In less than half a minute it had reached the top, and was struggling hard to get still higher. I took it down, and again placed it at the bottom. Up it went as fast as before; and this was repeated nine times with exactly the same result. For the tenth time I placed the persevering creature at the bottom of the curtain; and, after it had walked about halfway up, it suddenly stopped, apparently quite satisfied with having travelled a distance of over seventy feet in an upward direction. Its six legs were immediately arranged symmetrically in a business-like manner, and there it settled quite still, as if it had some definite object in stopping just exactly in that spot.
But we must now return to our own insect, which has by this time settled itself in a similar manner on the stick we provided for it. The peculiar organs which represent the wings, though so very small, show distinctly, in miniature, the colour and pattern of the fully developed wings of the species. An interesting change is just now commencing. These wings are apparently growing larger, but the development is very unequal, so that they become curled and crumpled till they are even more unsightly than before. All seems to be going amiss. But this lasts only for a short time. The fluid from the body steadily rushes into the nervures, causing the wings to expand, and in a few minutes the beautiful pinions are stretched to the full extent, assume their normal shape, and expose the full glory of their brilliant colours.
It may be interesting if I give an example showing the exact time taken for the full development of the wings of a certain insect. So I will here quote an entry from my note book; and, by the way, let me strongly advise all my young readers who follow up this subject to habitually enter in a book kept specially for the purpose all facts which strike them as they pursue their study of nature. The note to which I refer runs as follows:
‘Early on the evening of the 22nd [April] I selected a few chrysalides of Populi [the Poplar Hawk Moth, which, from the looseness of their cases, were thought to be just on the point of emerging. At 8.46 one of them showed signs of restlessness; and, after a few vigorous movements, during which it rolled itself over on the glass [I had placed the pupa on a piece of plate glass so that slight movements might be more easily detected], the front of its case was suddenly thrust off with considerable force; and in less than four seconds the imago was quite free and crawling on the table. After trying hard to reach a higher point than was provided for about four minutes, it rested to expand its wings-now about seven-sixteenths of an inch long, or one-third the total length of the body. At 9 o’clock the wings reached half the length of the body, and were much curled. At 9.12 they were fully expanded and straightened out.’
From this extract we see that the whole period from the bursting of the case to the full expansion of the wings was only twenty-six minutes; and it will be well to remind the reader that the process occupies even a much shorter time than this with many species, both of butterflies and moths. It will be observed, also, that the evening was chosen as the time for the observation. There was a reason for this. The Poplar Hawk Moth, as is the case with many others, almost invariably emerges from the chrysalis in the evening-usually after dark. But it may be mentioned in passing that a far larger number of the Lepidoptera as invariably emerge in the morning.
Again we will return to our newly emerged insect, for there are still one or two interesting points to observe. The wings have fully expanded, it is true, but how very limp they are! Take the creature on the tip of your finger and hold it so that its body is in a horizontal position. Immediately the wings bend downward with their own weight, so soft and flexible are they. The body, too, is still very soft, and apparently much too heavy for flight. Then, if you place it on a flat surface, it will immediately try to find some perpendicular or overhanging surface from which it can suspend itself by means of its legs, so that the pendant and straightened wings are in the best possible position for drying. As the insect walks away in search of such a resting place, the body still drags as it did before, and the wings bend over, either both on one side or one on each side of the body.
It is some time before the wings are sufficiently dry and rigid for flight, but the period varies greatly with different species. Some of the small butterflies and moths take to flight long before an hour has passed, but in many cases several hours elapse before the creature starts from its first resting place. Butterflies that emerge in the morning spend their first day actively on the wing; but the nocturnal moths that emerge early in the day do not fly till evening twilight. When, however, the time arrives, the insect flutters its wings as if to test their power before committing itself to the air; and frequently, after only a few seconds spent in this preparatory exercise, off it darts with astonishing rapidity. But others seem far more cautious. They vibrate their wings, sometimes with such rapidity that they are lost in a kind of mist, and with such power that their bodies would be carried suddenly into the air were they not firmly anchored by three pairs of hooked claws. Then, continuing the rapid vibration, they move slowly along, always holding on firmly by one or more legs, as if to still further satisfy themselves concerning the efficiency of their wings. Then they venture on a few short trial trips from one neighbouring object to another, and at last gain sufficient confidence for a long voyage.
How strange must be the feelings of a winged insect during its first flight! After a long period during which it was a helpless, crawling grub, and this followed by a term of imprisonment during which it was almost or quite shut off from the world, it now suddenly acquires such great powers of locomotion that it is often a match for ourselves.
But, alas! this life is short. A few days spent in sporting with those it meets and in sucking the sweet juices of many flowers; then a day or two during which the female deposits its eggs; again a few days employed in pleasures that become less and less attractive, till, at last, the creature becomes weary of life and settles down to die.
We have now traced the complete life history of the Lepidoptera from the egg to the perfect insect, avoiding descriptions that apply only to certain species as far as possible, excepting where such are useful as illustrations.
Only one thing more remains to be done before we start in real earnest with our practical work. We shall shortly be giving hints on the modes of capture, the ‘setting’ and the preservation of butterflies and moths. And in so doing we shall often have to observe important points in which our dealings with these two great divisions of the order will differ very materially. Hence we must not consider ourselves ready to proceed with the practical portion of the entomologist’s labours till we are perfectly satisfied that we know the main features that enable us to distinguish between the butterflies and the moths, and also know just a little concerning the subdivisions on each side.
This, then, shall form the subject of the next short chapter.