Wednesday, May 23, 2012

White Admiral Butterfly Life Cycle

Two weeks ago I was leading a group of 2nd graders around the Beaver Pond trail at Springbrook Nature Center.  We were looking for examples of life cycles in nature.  One of the students noticed this very odd caterpillar feeding on a wild cherry tree leaf.  It was a White Admiral butterfly caterpillar.  These Caterpillars mimic a bird dropping to not get eaten. 
 It does not look like food to me!
Two days later it attached itself to the cherry twig stem and hung up side down preparing to metomorphose into it's chrysalis.  This is the part of it's life cycle where it stays quiet while changing into a butterfly, or the adult portion of its life.

It hung like this for less than 24 hours before its skin split and the new chrysalis underneath was revealed.

Notice the spiracles, or breathing openings, one on each segment of its body. they are little tiny dark "holes" in the center of each segment.
I took this picture within an hour after it shed it's caterpillar skin.  Notice that you can already see the veins in the wings, and the antennae running along the front edge of the wing.

Less than 24 hours before photo was taken this was a caterpillar walking up the leaf on the tree!

It still is trying to look like a bird dropping so nothing will eat it.  It also has this very odd disc sticking out of its back.  Somehow the disc must make it look less like something good to eat, because I don't believe it will be of any use to the future butterfly. 
 Seven days later the skin over the wings has hardened and you can begin to see butterfly forming inside the transparent skin.
 By the 8th day as a chrysalis the color of the scales on the wings  can be seen through the skin.  With each hour the colors are more vivid now. 

The butterfly was ready to emerge at this point.  I waited up until after midnight to try to catch it breaking out of the chrysalis, but finally gave up.
 It must have emerged shortly after I left it, since the chrysalis was empty at 6:30 AM the next morning.  The butterfly was a few inches away on the twig, with wings hardened after several hours of drying
The White Admiral is a good example that you do not have to go to the tropics to see beautiful, colorful butterflies.  They exist right here in Minnesota, and this is one of the most colorful.

Here it is next to the now empty chrysalis.
These pretty butterflys are slightly smaller than Monarch butterflies, and are found in wooded areas where they fly very fast zig-zag patterns amongst the branches of the trees.  They are at Springbrook right now near the park entrance.  But you need quick eyes to see them.


  1. I had one of these dance by me just the other day and it took hours to find out what kind of butterfly it was. I loved your little story and I love that you got photographs of the whole process. Very very inspirational and very very beautiful thank you for posting