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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thanksgiving, Delayed

I meant to post this observation of the year's monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar crop on Thanksgiving Day, the day it was observed and photographed. These are the three survivors, tucking away the milkweed with the gusto of three-quarters starved pilgrims.

It's hard to imagine which is better, from both aesthetic and engineering points of view: the caterpillar or the butterfly. The simple bodies of caterpillars are designed to eat, grow, molt, with a bit of adaptive camouflage or poison sequestration thrown in as protection from the forces of evil that specialize in preying on their juicy selves. Not beautiful perhaps, caterpillars appeal with their chubby-baby faces and chunky prolegs which remind the observer of our own mammalian infancies. While butterflies casually evoke appreciation from just about everyone for their easy grace and carefree beauty, they are hard-wired to reproduce from the first pump of lymph in their newly unfolding wings. Butterflies seem free, I like to think they are, but the females especially are bound inextricably to the larval food plants on which they can lay eggs that will successfully produce more butterflies. The adult female monarchs glide softly in over the neighbors' power lines, cars and lawns; and unseen silken strings draw them in to the milkweed which they can not resist if they are to reproduce. The butterflies float freely out of the sky onto milkweed to lay more eggs as the maturing fat-cheeked caterpillars chew and grow.

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