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The King of Dinosaurs

Monarch Butterflies

From caterpillar to butterfly in the Museum's Smead Discovery Center

July 25, 2012
By Kate McNeece
Smead Discovery Center

Over the past month, the Smead Discovery Center played host to a baker’s dozen of monarch caterpillars. When they arrived, they were about a quarter of an inch long. They kept us busy with their demands for fresh milkweed to eat—we spent a fair amount of time in the staff parking lot snipping leaves for them!

Waiting to transform: Monarch caterpillars

After two weeks, they had grown to almost two inches in length. At that point they hung themselves upside down for about a day then, shaking and thrashing, shed their outer skin to reveal lumpy, pale pupa that quickly turned into a lovely, jade-green chrysalis decorated with a row of gold dots. Those dots looked like they’d been painted on with 24-carat gold. They were metallic and beautiful.

We were so excited on the days they were pupating, we kept getting pulled away from our work. We hung around the tank, waiting to see what was happening.

After that we waited. And waited. Patiently...and not so patiently. After the frenzy of feeding and cleaning the caterpillar tank this period was hard to sit through—when were they going to do something?! However, they were doing something in there, growing reproductive organs, sprouting wings, antennae and long, slim legs, redeveloping digestive tracts. These things take time!

About twelve days after they pupated, those jade green chrysalids turned startlingly transparent, revealing the black and orange wings of monarch butterflies. One by one the chrysalids split open and out swung a squat, ungainly bug with stumpy nubs for wings. We watched abdomens ripple, lengthening and narrowing to the more familiar butterfly shape as the wings slowly smoothed and spread.

We released the butterflies in the courtyard off the Museum’s central lobby where they have plenty of flowers for nectar and milkweed to lay new eggs on.

Ready to be released!

Metamorphosis is something that every child in Ohio learns about in school. As we get older, though, we sometimes forget the fun of what we’ve learned. We tuck facts away to just dust off occasionally for reference.

Getting to watch the process is a whole different ball game. The very best part of the whole experience was watching adults remember about butterflies. A dad’s face when his four-year-old explains the life cycle, complete with the right words. Grandmothers realizing that this tiny creature may fly all the way to Mexico for the winter. Sharing something brand new that we just learned, such as how to tell male monarch butterflies from female. Those were the parts that made this a lot more than a lesson in life cycles. It was a chance for visitors to reconnect with nature and science and to learn that you're never too old to be amazed.

While we get to do a lot of really fun things in the Smead Discovery Center, this summer these special visitors really stole the show!

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