Programmed to Change

Colour Sergeant Butterfly - Programmed to Change
When I was a child, I was introduced to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a chrysalis to a beautiful butterfly. I decided to figure out how that change took place, so I cut open a chrysalis to see what was going on inside. Instead of catching the transformation in progress all I found was a capsule of black soup. Later when I asked biologists how the process took place, I realized that no one fully understood it. The caterpillar was programmed to change, but nobody could understand how.

What I did learn was that this process goes on in a wide variety of life forms. Frogs, sea urchins, flying wasps, and beetles are just a few examples of creatures programmed to change. The December 2018 issue of National Geographic features a wonderful article about the use of 3D models and micro-CT scanning of the process. These tools have given us a great deal of understanding of how this transformation occurs. The article identifies three stages of the change that happens as the caterpillar changes into a butterfly.

1. PROGRAMMED ACTIVATION. The caterpillar eats vegetation until it is full grown. As it does so, its hormones begin to shift with some parts of the caterpillar expanding and others becoming degenerate. The thoracic legs grow into legs that are good for grasping. Four wing buds on the caterpillar’s body begin to develop into wings, and the antennae become larger. The silk gland begins to degenerate to become the chrysalis. The proleg degenerates making the caterpillar more dependent on crawling. The mandible the caterpillar uses for chewing begins to degenerate making room for a tube for sipping nectar. The simple eye of the caterpillar which could only detect the presence or absence of light begins to change. All of this is programmed into the genetic makeup of the caterpillar.

2. TRANSFORMATION. As the prolegs degenerate, thoracic legs grow to adult size. Wings develop with full color from the four wing buds. The chewing mandibles morph into two halves that zip into pipes that make a straw-like proboscis. Simple eyes move forward closer to the brain and produce a compound eye which gives true vision.

3. EMERGENCE. The brain of the butterfly is almost completely rewired to meet flight requirements.  One thing that the butterfly seems to retain from its caterpillar stage is olfactory memories. It needs that to know where to produce the next generation of caterpillars. The butterfly sucks in air until its chrysalis breaks open. The butterfly flaps its wings for several hours to dry them and to circulate blood before flying off in search of a mate.

All of this happens in 15 to 21 days. The gut of the butterfly shifts from digesting plants to nectar in that short time. There are wonderful artistic drawings of all this in the article. The author summarizes his study by saying, “..the insect’s makeover is a programmed mix of destruction and growth. Certain cells die, and body parts atrophy. Meanwhile, other cells, in place since birth, rapidly expand in as little as two weeks, the adult emerges completely remodeled, capable of flight – and bent on finding a mate.”

We would add that no programming happens by chance. It takes intelligence to program a computer. The caterpillar programmed to change to a butterfly reflects the wisdom and intelligence of a great programmer superior to anything the software companies can offer.
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Walnut Sphinx Accordion Worm

Walnut Sphinx Adult Form
One of the amazing things that we see in the natural world is that animals are designed so that they do not get wiped out by predators. A classic example is a caterpillar, which has no easy defense against birds who can find them even though camouflage is one of their primary defenses. The North American walnut sphinx moth caterpillar employs an unusual defense mechanism that gives it the nickname accordion worm.

This caterpillar is about two inches long and has air holes in its sides. It can compress its body to force air out through the holes. The accordion worm does this when threatened by a bird predator. The holes are spaced and designed so that the air passing through them sounds like the alarm calls of the particular bird species that threatens them. The whistle is not just a little squeak. The sound level is more than 80 decibels compared to a normal conversation which is around 50 to 60 decibels. When the caterpillar makes the sound, the birds that would eat the caterpillar scramble out of the area. Researchers from the University of Washington tell us that this is the first incidence of a deceptive alarm call between an insect and a bird.

God provides for all of life on our planet, and the complexity of keeping things in balance is remarkable. As we see the balance of nature becoming upset by human actions, we have to be impressed with what a delicate system of life the Earth contains. Romans 1:18 tells us that we can know God exists through the things He has made. Proverbs 8:1-6, 22-31 reminds us that wisdom has been a part of God’s creative process from the beginning.

If the accordion worm could not survive, it would not become the beautiful North American walnut sphinx moth in the picture. More and more we realize how important it is to take care of what God has created for us.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Data from “News of the Wild” in National Wildlife, Summer 2018.

Butterfly Point of View

A Butterfly Point of View
Perhaps it would be good to see the world from a butterfly point of view. One of the wonders of the insect world is the emergence of a butterfly from a cocoon. The transformation that takes place is truly amazing as the caterpillar’ body is dissolved and reorganized into a butterfly. I remember as a kid cutting open a cocoon to see the developing butterfly and finding a gooey mass of green slime instead.

The wonder of butterflies can inspire our imagination. Someone named Margy wrote the following on February 27, 1990. Somehow this short poem found its way to me. It is a butterfly point of view of metamorphosis if a butterfly could think like a human. It’s also a reminder of how God can reshape us into something new.

In the fall, I enjoy the fresh air and falling leaves for the last time,
for soon I prepare a cocoon for myself.
A cocoon that will keep me safe and warm against the harsh winter!
I withdraw into the cocoon when it’s time, withdrawing into the darkness, away from the cold stings of the world.
I sleep and sleep, losing all energy, lying dormant.
It’s cloudy and dark. I feel the emptiness, loneliness.
I wait and wait!
And, when it’s time, God’s gentle voice tells me, “Wake up, you’re free!”
Slowly, I eat away at the cocoon, feeling the warmth of the sunshine on my face.
I step out, realizing God has blessed me with wings!
I’m anxious, but I make my first attempts to fly.
The wind helps lift me up into the gentle breeze.
I flap my wings. I’m flying! I’m free!
Once again I feel confident, confident to face the world.

 

–John N. Clayton © 2017