March 8, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Design of Life Update: Butterflies

Illustra Media’s trilogy of documentaries only began to uncover the wonders of life. Here are updates on the series’ featured animals, this one on butterflies.

Illustra Media: Metamorphosis

Watch an amazing time-lapse video of butterfly wings developing in the chrysalis made by Nipam Patel of University of California at Berkeley. His lab assistant was able to extract tissue and grow it under the microscope.

In PNAS, Japanese scientists discuss the elaborate chemical dance going on during insect metamorphosis. Here’s just enough jargon to indicate how complex the process is in silkworm moths: “Based on these results, we propose a mechanism in which JH-inducible Kr-h1 directly binds to the KBS site upstream of the E93 locus to repress its transcription in a cell-autonomous manner, thereby preventing larva from bypassing the pupal stage and progressing to precocious adult development.” You get the idea. Figuring all this out could keep PhD scientists busy for a long time, but caterpillars know just what to do.

Programmed cell death in the chyralis (Illustra Media)

All insects undergo metamorphosis, some not quite as complete as those of butterflies. Live Science shows new X-ray images of the “dramatic physical transformation” of bluebottle blowfly maggots from pupae into adults. (Since this species of fly plays a key role in body decay and quickly finds decomposing flesh, forensic scientists often use their presence as clues for time of death.) The 10-day process of metamorphosis of the blowfly has now been seen as never before:

Researchers used X-ray imaging to peer at the developing insect as it nestled inside an opaque shell called a puparium. They watched as the larval structures melted away and mature body parts sprouted in their place….

It took only about 1 hour and 15 minutes for the general shape of the adult body to emerge, the scientists said. The rest of the pupation — which lasted about nine days — was spent fine-tuning the development of all the insect’s new parts, the researchers said.

Monarch butterfly on flower

Sadly, Monarch butterfly numbers are still on the decline. says that they are down 27% in the mountain forests of Mexico where Monarchs spend the winter, as the Illustra film describes so wonderfully. Part of the decline is attributable to late winter storms that felled 100 acres of trees in the habitat zone. Other reasons include continued logging by Mexican farmers and decline of milkweed on which the migrating butterflies depend.

A chart in another article shows Monarch butterfly birthplaces by region. Data are being gathered by researchers from the University of Guelph in order to conserve the beloved winged wonders.

Lastly, reports that a museum is attracting butterfly visitors as well as humans. Patricia Change of the University of Panama studied the lepidopteran insects around the new Ghery’s Biodiversity Museum in Panama City. She found six butterfly families and eight moth families represented in the 326 specimens she collected. Apparently the brightly-colored walls of the museum draw them in for a closer look.

design-of-lifeA few clips from the Illustra film are available for watching on the website. Hopefully they will inspire you to purchase and share this inspiring film with your classroom, church, Bible study, family and friends. Copies in quantity to use for ministry can be purchased here in convenient quicksleeve format.

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