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Morphing Monarchs

By Morgan Moller, Age 11; Emily Odean, Age 12; and Joella Ruefer, Age 11

Rock Island, Illinois

Many monarchs visit our school yard each year, so we had plenty of questions about the life of these butterflies. How long does a caterpillar stay a caterpillar? How big does a caterpillar get before it changes into a chrysalis? How long does it stay in a chrysalis before turning into an adult? We raised monarchs from egg to adulthood. Everyday, we recorded how big they were and what happened to them. Some of us got a little attached to our monarchs. Morgan and Emmy named their monarch, J.B. Mow. Joella named her monarch, BoBo. Here is what we learned about the life cycles of monarchs.

Hungry Caterpillars
We fed our caterpillars fresh milkweed leaves twice daily: once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The caterpillars got fatter and longer each day. A monarch caterpillar sheds its skin very often; but it's hard to find the molted skin because the caterpillar eats it. Morgan and Emmy saw their larva eat its molted skin! We found that some caterpillars grew faster and larger than others did. How come? After thinking about it, we came up with two reasons. First, some ate more than others. Second, some of them could have been older when we first got them. We also found out from a butterfly expert that sometimes late-fall caterpillars are smaller than the ones born earlier in the season. Ours were late-fall caterpillars.

Caterpillar to Chrysalis
Our caterpillars stayed caterpillars for about two to three weeks before turning into chrysalises. When a larva turns into its chrysalis, its head splits, and it sheds its skin for the last time. Its new skin is very soft; and once this soft skin dries, it becomes the larva's chrysalis. We watched one of our larvae getting ready to go into its chrysalis. Its head changed, and its skin began to split. But it died in the process. All of the chrysalises in our class were bright green with a gold rim around the top. We were surprised how bright the gold was. It also really surprised us that the color of the chrysalis changed from green to brown to clear. Our larvae stayed in their chrysalises for about 12 days before they came out.

Ready for Takeoff
Adult monarchs hatching from their chrysalises are all crumpled at first. They look and feel very damp. Our butterflies took about 45 minutes to an hour to get their wings fully spread. We noticed something interesting: small caterpillars become small butterflies. Most of our monarchs were the same size. But, two caterpillars were much smaller early on and stayed smaller in all stages, including the adult butterfly stage. Monarchs aren't ready to fly right away because they first need to get the fluid pumping through their wings. Ours weren't ready until the next day.

Once our butterflies were ready to fly, we "tagged" them. We put a little sticker on the bottom of their wings and recorded the information about each butterfly. This way, if someone finds one of our butterflies, they can notify investigators studying butterflies through the Monarch Watch project at the University of Kansas. Then we took our butterflies outside and let them go. A few flew into our butterfly garden. One of them flew into the trees. One flew south right away. We predicted that one would end up in Mexico somewhere and come back with a nice tan! (JUST KIDDING!)

Special thanks to our teacher, Carol Van De Walle, at Audubon Elementary and to Johnna Mossage.

to Monarch
Tiny Life Monarch

Photos courtesy of Dale A. McClung and Monarch Watch.

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