We can find some of the most incredible demonstrations of design in the insect world. Survival in places where very cold winters exist presents a challenge for Insects. Some can bury deep underground, but that is not always practical. Another method of avoiding being wiped out by freezing temperatures is migrating to warmer areas for the winter.
The painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) is one of the most common butterfly species in the world. Researchers knew that painted ladies in Europe fly over 9,000 miles (15,000 km) across the Sahara desert to winter in Africa. But, until recently, they didn’t know precisely where these butterflies go. Now scientists have learned that they live and breed in the savannahs and highlands of central Africa.
Painted lady butterflies from Europe spend their time in semiarid savannas from September to November. When those areas become too dry, they head further south to the savannas and highlands across central Africa for December to February. They avoid tropical rainforests because they are too humid for these insects. Like monarch butterflies, they go through multiple generations before the adults journey back to Europe in the spring.
The researchers who studied this incredible migration have learned where the painted lady butterflies go. However, questions remain unanswered. For example, who told these butterflies to make this long journey, and how do succeeding generations know to make the same trip? Most of us in North America are familiar with monarch butterflies and their impressive migration to Mexico. Still, the migration of painted lady butterflies is the longest journey of any butterfly.
God’s design for the survival of all creatures speaks of His wisdom and planning. When we see the design in the insect world, we appreciate the wisdom and power of God, who has entrusted us with protecting all of His creation.
Insects can be beautiful. Today we want to consider a family of insects with about 180,000 described species. They include many of the most beautiful insects on Earth. They are in the Lepidoptera order, and we call them butterflies and moths.
Before they become butterflies and moths, these insects go through a larval stage as caterpillars.
When the caterpillar has eaten its fill of nutrients from its favorite plant, it goes into a pupal stage and through a complete metamorphosis to become a butterfly or a moth. It is one of the most amazing transformations in nature.
The English word “metamorphosis” is from a Greek word meaning “transformation.” So the caterpillar goes through a dramatic change in form and lifestyle. That word is used in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2 to describe the “transfiguration” of Jesus Christ on the mountain where He met with Moses and Elijah. Paul used the word in Romans 12:2, where he describes the “renewing of your mind” to live a beautiful life according to the will of God.
There is much more to say about beautiful insects, but we will conclude our review of these fascinating creatures tomorrow.
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have been studying the brains of insects to learn how to build computers that can intercept incoming missiles. Dragonflies successfully capture up to 95% of the prey they pursue – which is usually mosquitoes. The dragonfly doesn’t just aim its body at the mosquito, but rather it points its body at where the mosquito is going to be. You can see the connection between missile defense systems and dragonfly brains.
Dragonflies have specialized eyes that send data to their brains at the equivalent of 200 frames per second, which is several times faster than the human eye. The human brain has many more neurons than the dragonfly–86 billion as opposed to the 250,000. The larger number of neurons in human brains allows us to have cognition and do many things. However, dragonflies are designed to do one thing—to catch their food—and do it fast.
Dragonflies respond to a maneuver by their prey in 50 milliseconds (ms). That requires the eye to detect and transmit information to the brain in 10 ms. The brain has to calculate the dragonfly’s counter-maneuver in 35 ms to leave 5 ms for flight muscles to activate and take the dragonfly to where the mosquito will be. In-flight, the dragonfly must continually monitor the mosquito’s path and recalculate the trajectory. The speed of the process means there is time for only three or four neuron layers to act. Missile defense systems and dragonfly brains must act quickly.
Other insects have neurons designed for specific functions. For example, monarch butterflies have a navigational system that depends on the position of the Sun. Since the Sun’s position changes from morning to afternoon, the butterflies must have a designed system that allows them to always travel in the right direction. In addition to that, they need an instinct that tells them when to start their journey. Ants and bees also have neuron structures that allow them to return to their nest or hive no matter how far they get from it in their search for food.
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and Janelia Research Campus are studying these insect brains with the idea of building computers that will allow interception of missiles, prevent cars from colliding, and serve other practical purposes that require focus and speed. Proverbs 6:6 tells us to “go to the ant … consider its ways and be wise.” The design we see in even the simplest of God’s creatures radiates purpose and intelligence beyond that of mechanical chance.
There are many things about fall that make it an interesting time of year. It is not just the colors and the cool and pleasant temperatures that make fall special. We also see migrations and winter adaptations.
The most amazing migrations, however, are the smaller forms of life. For example, green darner dragonflies spend the winter in Florida and the Caribbean, where they mate and produce offspring. When the average temperature warms to about 48 degrees F, these offspring fly 900 miles to the north, where they breed, lay eggs, and die. When the eggs hatch, they spend the summer in Canada or Michigan. In the fall, these third-generation individuals return to Florida flying some 900 miles (1500 km) or more over a route that they have never seen before.
When we consider migrations and winter adaptations, we can’t overlook monarch butterflies. They are the most amazing of these multi-generational migrants, with fourth-generation butterflies making a 3,000-mile (4,800 km) flight. There are also insects and amphibians with a blood protein that acts like antifreeze, allowing them to be frozen solid without damaging their cells.
There seems to be no limit to the way animals can adapt to winter, and sometimes these adaptations change. In our area, Canada geese used to all migrate to southern latitudes to spend the winter. With the advent of power plants that keep some rivers and lakes free of ice, that has changed. A sizable population of Canada geese remains in our area of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota all winter long. We have had as many as 200 geese crowding open water near a power plant in the St. Joseph River during the coldest days of winter. That didn’t happen in 1959 when I moved to this area.
These patterns of migration and winter adaptations are difficult to explain as accidental. It would seem that the animals have had a designed genetic program to allow them to survive. The design is fascinating, and the Designer is even more amazing. We praise God as we watch the magic of migrations and winter adaptations.
One of the most amazing things we see in the natural world is the ability of some living things to make incredible migrations. In the past, we have described the monarch butterfly’s migrations from wintering areas in Mexico to northern parts of the United States covering a round trip of about 10,000 kilometers. However, we see that painted lady butterflies out-migrate monarchs.
Scientists have studied how the monarchs navigate such incredible distances with formidable obstacles in their way. Biologists have proposed a variety of models as to how these fragile butterflies could acquire such an ability. However, in the case of the monarchs, the journey is not made by a single butterfly but by a succession of generations.
Science News for July 21, 2018 (page 4) told about a study of another butterfly with an amazing migration. It has the scientific name Vanessa cardui and is commonly known as the painted lady butterfly. These butterflies live in Southern Europe and migrate to Africa in the fall–a distance of 12,000 km. That’s 2000 kilometers farther than the monarchs, and the journey involves crossing the Sahara Desert. As with the monarchs, scientists had believed that the migration involved several generations. New techniques allowed researchers to put markers on the painted ladies when they were caterpillars. We now know that at least some of the butterflies make this incredible journey in one lifetime.