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My young daughter caught a caterpillar (pararge aegeria, to my non-expert eye) and we put it in a breathable jar with leaves, kept indoors in England. (Current climate is around 14-19 degrees Celcius at home, I have no specialist equipment to control the environment.)
In the last few days it has entered its pupil stage in a very dark brown chrysalis. I would like my daughter to be present at its emergence, if possible.
Is there anything I can do to either control the time that it emerges, or anticipate the time that it emerges?
Is A Butterfly The Same As A Caterpillar?
Is a butterfly the same as a caterpillar? Well, allow me to answer that question with another question! Is an adult the same as a child? Perhaps you see where I&rsquom going with this. A child and an adult are both humans, just at different stages of life. Similarly, a butterfly and a caterpillar belong to the same species (organisms belonging to the same taxonomic group), but are at different stages of their life. Just as a child slowly grows into an adult, so too does a caterpillar grow into a butterfly, albeit at a much faster rate. Basically, at some point in time, every butterfly was a caterpillar.
With the change of seasons, so comes a change in our monarch caterpillars
Photo submitted to Times Observer Many people collect and corral the brightly colored larvae around the end of each summer. They watch them undergo the metamorphosis that transforms them from the lime green, not-so-creepy crawlies to bright orange streaks that migrate to Mexico each winter. This year, people are finding a disturbing thing happening to their specimens. See page A-3.
Are your monarch caterpillars melting?
Many people collect and corral the brightly colored larvae around the end of each summer. They watch them undergo the metamorphosis that transforms them from the lime green, not-so-creepy crawlies to bright orange streaks that migrate to Mexico each winter.
This year, people are finding a disturbing thing happening to their specimens.
Most people who’ve raised monarchs from larvae to adult butterflies are shocked to see so many die off, seemingly without an explanation. Many of those people are pretty bummed about it, too, and wondering whether they’ve done anything to cause it.
John Fedak, a science teacher for over 20 years, has an idea of what might be happening.
“It sounds to me like a viral infection,” said Fedak after being told the symptoms of a large butterfly population in a tank.
A butterfly enthusiast had monarchs in chrysalises of all stages — from only half-formed to fully-formed, and apparently healthy, still bright green and opaque — suddenly turning black and liquefying, oozing onto the tank floor and everything beneath them. Chrysalises were falling from the ceiling of the tank, and some of the caterpillars hadn’t even begun to form a chrysalis before going from bright green and yellow to dull brown and then black. Of a large population, around one third of the caterpillars had already died, and another third of what was left weren’t looking too good.
The virus Fedak suspects is Nuclear Polyhedrosis. And he had an analogy to explain how it can decimate a monarch population.
“Basically all of the caterpillars have some of this virus in them all of the time,” he said. “But it’s like a cold or flu virus. When it gets to a point that it overwhelms the system’s ability to manage it, it kills them.”
The virus, according to Fedak, is one of the more contagious ones that affect monarchs.
“NPV kills caterpillars in or out of a chrysalis,” said Fedak, “and as they die, they contaminate all the others.”
The entomological equivalent of one kindergartener with an influenza virus leaving the entire classroom puking for days.
Only rather than grounding the monarchs for a day or two of feeling funky, and then getting back to life, Fedak said this virus basically digests the caterpillar from the inside out, liquefying the cells and causing the telltale strings of black, green, and brown descending from the hanging carcasses.
According to “When Butterflies get Bugs: The ABCs of Lepidopteran Disease,” an educational resource available on the Emory University’s research archives, written by Sonia Altizer and Jaap de Roode, NPV is actually a little ickier than a cold or even the flu.
“These pathogens win the distinction of behaving like the Ebola virus of the insect world,” writes Altizer and de Roode. The virus is picked up from the environment, usually from the milkweed the monarch spends its entire larval stage eating relentlessly. As the virus reproduces, rapidly and relentlessly, within the cells of the caterpillar, the fluid that leaks onto the caterpillar’s surroundings provide a host of new viral particles that are easily ingested by the next caterpillar to come along.
It’s a pretty big bummer, for caterpillars and for those who look forward to this season, specifically because of the enjoyment they get from feeding their monarch habit.
He raised around 150 of the insects this year, and saw only minimal casualties from pretty unremarkable causes. Anyone who’s ever raised a handful of monarchs is likely prepared to see one or two of the chrysalises turn black and die during the process. What most people are not used to is the sight of a veritable monarch plague that’s colloquially known in entomological circles as “Monarch Black Death,” or “butterfly melt.”
Fedak said he’s had some people tell him of the same situation with their monarchs this year, and while hiking in Bradford last week he came upon a population that appeared to have died of NPV. He credits the damp environment and cool temperatures with this year’s apparently high incidence of monarch NPV die-off, but said he hasn’t done any scientific investigation to confirm his hypothesis. Still, with a 25 year history of teaching environmental science, biology, and ecology among other things, his is a pretty solid hypothesis backed by plenty of experience from which to draw.
NPV is pretty significantly devastating, particularly in captive populations with limited ability to distance itself from contaminated environments and food supplies. Symptoms of NPV infection in monarchs, according to butterflyfunfacts.com (which is one of the more reputable sources on monarch apocalypse research), include eating less than healthy caterpillars, becoming “soft to the touch instead of feeling like a nice firm caterpillar,” becoming sluggish, and a tendency toward an oily sheen before they die. The behavioral symptoms are sometimes the first things that experienced monarch handlers notice.
Most monarchs spend much of their entire larval stage on the same milkweed plant, or close by in clumps of the weed that grows on roadsides, in fields, and along treelines at the edge of open land.
It’s unusual for them to crawl up toward the top of the container they’re kept in until they’re ready to begin forming a chrysalis, at which point they typically head for the highest point they can reach, which is almost always the lid of the container. Larvae with NPV, however, may only make it halfway up the wall of the container, or less, before attaching to the surface and attempting to form a chrysalis. Once it reaches its terminus, regardless of where in the container that happens to be, an NPV-infected specimen will often hang in an inverted V shape, from its middle legs, or in a straight line, hanging straight, head down.
Once dead of NPV, the specimen will then liquefy and ooze onto whatever is below it, infecting everything it touches. Rain or water in the container will splash the viral remains of the specimen. So don’t let your dead leaky caterpillars get wet.
That would be bad news indeed.
Anything that lands where the caterpillar juice has been tracks it to wherever it lands next, and next, and next. And pretty much anything attracted to dead animals, like flies, will be attracted by the foul stench of a dead monarch, according to butterflyfunfacts.com. According to that site, one caterpillar can contain one billion virus particles, meaning that an entire population of NPV victims can spread the virus exponentially.
Interestingly enough, NPV is insidious enough, and also picky enough about what species it kills off, that it’s actually bottled and sold as a pesticide.
So what do you do if your monarchs are sinking faster than the Titanic and ruining all your nerdy science fun this fall?
Triage and damage control, recommends Fedak. Remove all of the caterpillars from the tank and never use that tank again.
Separate out any clearly terminal caterpillars and euthanize them.
You need to decide what kind of karmic debt you can realistically afford before deciding how to do that, but butterflyfunfacts.com suggests freezing them in a plastic bag.
That site also suggests washing all containers in a solution of five to ten percent bleach if you’re planning to reuse it, which Fedak doesn’t advise. Any caterpillars that seem plump, firm, and are eating well can be tentatively salvaged in a separate container, but don’t have unrealistic hopes. NPV is a pretty serious destructive force, entomologically speaking.
The good news is that it’s not too late to find new monarchs, and as long as you’re not putting them in a contaminated container you’re not doing anything to put them at risk for NPV.
All milkweed fed to monarchs should be rinsed under running water, and caterpillar feces, as well as day old milkweed, should be removed and the tank wiped clean with as little disruption to the precious larvae as possible. Monarchs prefer common milkweed to the swamp and butterfly weed milkweed, which are also native to our region, Fedak said.
Fedak said it’s hard to tell when any given monarch season will be over, but added that he’s seen monarchs still hanging around as late as October.
The Three Categories of Celibacy
This group consists of men who are struggling to get laid without success. WASM will be doing several articles in the near future on how to be sexual catnip to women so stay tuned. However, if you need some information right away head over to Scot McKay’s website and sign up for his great free newsletter. Scot has some of the best material on the internet for becoming a powerfully attractive man with solid character who has his choice of women for sex and relationships.
Temporary Voluntary Celibacy
These men have decided for various reasons to abstain sexually for a period of time. This can range from a married man choosing to not initiate sex with his wife, to a single man taking a break from the dating scene, all the way to a Russian hermit living in the Siberian wilderness.
The vast majority of humans have biological sexual drives so any healthy decision to be celibate should allow for that fact. Married men can go for a while without sex but sooner or later both he and his wife will need intercourse to be satisfied. Single men can avoid dating for periods of time but it often makes them reclusive and bitter. And hermits, Buddhist monks and other ascetics can find enlightenment through self-denial but generally if they wait too long their health and well-being will suffer.
The final category consists of men who are never allowed to have sex for religious or so-called “moral reasons.” History shows us that because sex is a biological imperative for our species, denying that impulse is not only practically impossible it is almost always dangerous. The mandated celibacy for Catholic priests was a perfect example. Over the centuries there have been untold thousands of illegitimate children born to priests, hundreds of horrible abuse scandals and millions of individuals who have been permanently scarred – all because the church refused to accept basic biology.
Religious and spiritual beliefs form an ethical foundation for billions of people around the world but sexuality is a component of every human on the planet. If science and faith are to co-exist successfully there cannot be a denial of our fundamental physiological needs.
Getting Started in the Garden
You can plant milkweed seed in flats and transfer the seedlings to a garden or a container, but do so when the first 2 to 4 true leaves emerge and the plants are still small. At that point the roots won&rsquot have overgrown a typical well in a nursery flat.
Milkweeds don&rsquot need large doses of fertilizer, if any. In fact, too much nitrogen can inhibit flowering. After the seeds sprout, simply keep competing plants weeded until the seedlings grow tall enough to tower over their competitors.
First-year milkweeds generally won&rsquot flower. The most important thing happening in the first year is the formation of rhizomes &mdash thick, underground stems capable of sending down roots and sending up shoots. In their second spring, the plants will sprout again, sending new shoots from the rhizomes. Under most circumstances, you won&rsquot need to do anything to your milkweed rhizomes over the winter. However, if you live in a location where the ground doesn&rsquot freeze in winter, experience a severe drought, or grow your plants in containers, watering your plants occasionally will help the rhizomes survive until spring.
Asclepias tuberosa – Butterfly weed. Photo by Chris Colby.
In their second year, initial growth will be quick, fueled by the starches stored in the rhizomes. The plants may flower in the second year, but this isn&rsquot guaranteed. Most milkweeds won&rsquot flower until the third year, but it&rsquos worth the wait. One of the more complex flowers among plants, these flowers attract a wide variety of insects. The flower will mature into a seedpod that will eventually rupture, releasing seeds to be dispersed in the wind.
To attract monarchs, plant your milkweeds among other native, flowering plants. Established milkweeds won&rsquot require maintenance however, continue to check for pests and infestations.
The Butterfly’s Effect
Why study Butterflies in Homeopathy?
Butterflies are the creatures that inhabit more areas of our Planet than any other, migrating specimens being found from the Equator to the Arctic. Along with the Ladybug or Ladybird, they are the only insects that generally inspire awe and appreciation instead of fear and repulsion. Interestingly, they are both also etymologically related to Our Lady the Virgin Mary1. The English term Ladybird and German term Marienkaepfer for ladybug respectively stand for ‘Our Lady’s bird’ and ‘Mary’s beetle’ whereas the Spanish term ‘Mariposa’ for butterfly probably derives from a 15th-century children’s song which states ‘Maria alight, stay among us’, ‘Maria posate…’ whence Mariposa, obviously a symbol of lightness, heavenliness, and innocence.
Lepidoptera – Nymphalids – Moths – Butterfly themes – Butterfly delusions – Butterfly sensations – Butterfly proving symptoms – Butterfly rubrics – Emergency remedy – CFS – SLA – Alzheimer.
Over 20 Lepidoptera remedies have been proved, yet they are scarcely used. Part of the reason lies in the fact that they are not a regular part of our Homeopathic College curriculae, precedence naturally being given to more widely used policrests. Moreover, there are few books, the provings are hard to find and not always available in English. This makes for gross under-representation in our homeopathic repertories, where the most comprehensive contain little over 2000 rubrics2 for the whole family (as compared to the almost 10 for Aves, the Birds, other grand flying creatures of the Earth). Our oldest Lepidoptera entered our Repertories with T.F. Allen and Clarke (Bomb-chr and Bomb-pr – =incidently, both abbreviations are wrong, as neither species actually belong to the genus Bombyx) at the turn of the last century with a total of under 180 rubrics of which only 8 are mental symptoms. All other remedies have existed only since the 1990’s, some having as few as 4 entries in our rubrics (Vanessa Atalanta), and many having no physicals whatsoever.
So how can we prescribe a butterfly remedy?
Knowing the themes of the Families are fundamental in these cases in order to identify the source. Once we are certain a Butterfly remedy is needed, the repertory and some books or articles are absolutely necessary in order to select the correct species. Generically giving ‘Butterfly’ (as suggested by R. Sankaran3) will be useful in those cases where Vital Force is strong, so that giving a remedy within a certain range of the simillimum – in other words, within a certain range of the vibration of the Vital Force – is sufficient to bring about the cure. In all other cases, making a more precise prescription is required.
1. Etymology4: The origins of the word for butterfly are very interesting in various languages denoting symbolism which has seeped into Lepidoptera remedy pictures. In Ancient Greece butterfly was termed Psyche, the same word for soul or breath. Psyche was also a beautiful human woman who married the God Eros, and is often portrayed as having butterfly wings – symbol of her innocent love or innocence to be lost. A comparison can be made with a modern day Russian dialect, where butterfly is dushichka from dusha also meaning soul just as in Ancient Greek. Butterfly also means canopy, spreading out, long-lived, and is a symbol of marital happiness as well as representing the soul of the dead (moths in certain parts of Asia), the human hand (in Ancient Aztec culture) or witches (in North European folklore).
Taking all this into consideration, a thorough study of provings5-8 and cases has highlighted the following themes:
1. Metamorphosis: A general insect theme particularly present in Lepidoptera, certainly due to the almost miraculous transformation of this creature. Patients exhibit need for transformation or change, sometimes simply in the form of mimicry, disguise, camouflage or the desire to dress-up, as came up in Patricia Leroux’s pediatric cases.
2. Lightheartedness & Uplifting: Butterflies are a symbol of innocence & cheerfulness they appear light and elegant, even superficial. However, in numerous provings uplifting of the spirit, heightened awareness and self-awareness arose. On the whole, these characteristics combined make for optimistic individuals.
3. Reduced mental agility: Mentally there are often memory &/or concentration difficulties, and generally a good deal of confusion. These symptoms make Lepidoptera possible choices in diagnosed cases of ADHA, ASD, Alzheimer or Parkinson.
4. Agitation: A variation of the ‘industriousness’ typical of insects: there can be a constant need for movement along with restlessness, even insomnia.
5. Exhaustion: Both on the physical and mental planes, exhaustion is possibly linked to the great effort butterflies make in nature during the various transition phases, e.g., during ecdyses (moulting of the old cuticle or exoskeleton), during the final nymphosis (twisting and turning to reach the final transformation, pushing and squirming to emerge from the chrysalis) and finally heaving in order to inflate the wings.
6. Hiding: An animal theme – in butterfly, often this need arises not so much in order to avoid danger, but also to recover, rest – or find shelter from a cruel world. Can be linked to the “Cocoon phase”.
7. Abandonment: Another animal theme strongly felt in most butterflies and often accompanied by a sense of lack of guidance. Adults can feel castaway, shipwrecked, defenseless, alone on an abandoned island children feel unaided or unguided by parents or guardians – or the contrary, children feel they must help/guide their parents or authority figures. In any case, guidance and abandonment are issues.
Hence we see that the sense of abandonment/lack of guidance can lead to a need for a guide OR a need to guide:
Abandoned Need for a guide
Only for one butterfly proving does this theme not emerge: Graphium Sarpedon Choredon, the Blue Triangle Butterfly. The remedy was prepared with a live butterfly using a Radionics Box. The prover (Heidi Wedd, Australia) believes the explanation for this difference lies therein.
8. Family & Responsibility: Another animal theme, present and strong in butterflies despite their flippancy and desire for change.
9. Sexuality: Pronounced in most butterflies. A larva’s (caterpillar’s) goal is to eat, increasing in weight two to ten-thousand fold…whilst an imago’s goal (imago is the term given to the adult winged insect) is to reproduce: some imagos completely lack a proboscis (the spiralled, tube-like mouthpiece with which they suck in juices or nectars), so the only scope of their 3 to 7 day existence is to find a mate and copulate. In many species, copulation lasts several hours, or even the whole night.
Some exceptions: This theme did not come up strongly in the provings regarding neither of the two Blue Morphos (Morpho Peleides & Morpho Menelaus). From the life of the butterfly, the reason for this discrepancy remains unclear.
10. Transsexuality: Confusion/Indecision about sexual or personal identity: this is the general ‘duality’ theme present in most insects pushed to the limit. It is not uncommon for patients to go through a phase of their lives in which they feel unsure whether they are or want to be male or female. Though this trait can be considered common in childhood and early adolescence, it becomes strange, rare and peculiar when the phase is prolonged or accentuated.
11. Genetics: Arose in several of P. Le Roux’s provings – occurrence of genetic diseases, among others things vis-à-vis genetic predisposition toward concentration or mental/intellectual difficulties.
12. Dreams: Apart from typical animal dreams (animals, birds, war,danger, water, children), many patients dream of … butterflies!
13. Insect themes: other insect themes are also present, such as
– staying near walls: desire to, feeling as if
– feeling small
-(Extreme) sensitivity: to environment – sounds, colours, light, music – and pain.
– Attire: colourful and stylish (the opposite may also apply)
The extreme sensitivity of the substance directly reflects the sensitivity of the creature in nature:
- Since they have no tongue – their mouthpiece being a strawlike proboscis – lepidoptera have tastebuds on their feet which are thousands of times more sensitive than human tastebuds
- With their huge compound eyes, they can perceive a larger range of colours than any other animal, perhaps comparable only to that of dragonflies. Hence, two butterfly markings that appear identical to the human eye can be drastically different for lepidotera since they perceive infrareds and ultraviolets humans are blind to
- Moulting, emerging and wing-inflating all appear to be activites which entail a great deal of energy, effort and pain.
3. There also appear to be slight yet relevant differences between Nymphalids VS other butterflies:
- Nymphalids have slower flight, appear less in a rush
- Human friendly creatures: are known to alight on eager watchers
- Enjoy attention given to them, will stop to allow a great photograph to be taken
- Colour pattern is brown-based, though beautifully so
- More than 1 species only mate once: Euphydryas Aurinia male closes up the female’s genital opening with a secreted substance, chastity belt-like Inachis-Io female, the magnificent European Peacock butterfly, is not only monandrous (one mate) but is only receptive to mating once soon after emerging – making it almost impossible for males as well to find a second receptive female.
- In conclusion, Nymphalids appear to have slower paced lives and more stable relationships than other butterfly remedies that often have a very liberal attitude toward sexuality and love.
There are some important structural dissimilarities between butterflies and moths which understandably bring out differences in homeopathic indication of the substances. About 95% of the approximately 180 species of lepidoptera are moths. Although most moths are nocturnal, this cannot be taken as the main difference because many are either diurnal or crepuscular. No clear-cut differentiation is possible since exceptions exist to all of the basic rules described below, which are nonetheless valid:
- Shape of the antennae: butterflies and skippers are Rhopalocera, meaning they have knobbed antennae – club-tipped in butterflies, hooked in skippers – whereas moths’ are anything but club-tipped (feathered, comb-like, thready…), called Heterocera
- Resting posture of wings: butterflies close them vertically in a booklike fashion over their backs, making the insect very thin and difficult to see when gazed upon from above whereas moths generally close them flat on their backs, often forming a triangular rooftop
- Silk: most moths spin a silken cocoon to protect the chrysalis (final pupation phase) whereas hardly any butterflies do so, though some butterflies spin a silken shelter woven together with leaves for the larvae (caterpillars).
- Colour: Most moths have dull colouring (necessary for camouflage since they expose the top wings when resting) whereas most butterflies are brightly coloured important exceptions to this rule exist for both classifications.
Also noteworthy is that the adult imago phase is often not the most well-known phase in moths – take the Silk Moth, known for the cocoon whence we make silk the Processionary Moth, known for the poisonous, irritating hairs of the caterpillar the Vine Sphinx Moth known for the damage its ravenous appetite incurs vineyards. Conversely, the adult imago is generally the best-known stage for butterflies.
We propose the following differentiation between Butterfly-Moth Themes20-21:
Moths represent more of the DARK SIDE, as seen in the following themes:
1) Dark Side, DEATH: stronger sense of presentiment, deeper sadness.
2) Dangerous Parenting: Guidance can be dangerous, not only lacking (Guenther)
3) Skin eruptions: can be more dangerous, infectious than in butterfly
4) Caterpillar: Remedies are often made from the larvae and not the imago: we can imagine less ‘flying sensations’ and/or ‘wings, having’ delusions.
5. Sensations and Delusions22-24
Every kingdom, family and remedy will express itself in a particular way this stands true for any method of case analysis one is using, not only in Sensation Method. A lepidopteran patient is likely to have the following sensations:
– Being small, frail needing protection feeling abandoned
– Being caught, stuck, enclosed, closed in, gripped, wrapped up, in a tunnel or narrow place.
Notice that these expressions are in differential diagnosis with Second Row elements, as the second row’s womb issues greatly resemble the cocoon phase.
The place where the patient is ‘stuck’ can have either positive or negative connotations, depending on whether he/she desires respite or wants to go through the final transformation and emerge. The process they go through is different though the final outcome is the same:
In a Good place: the description is like a cocoon… a home, castle, haven, safe place, place to rest, take respite, feeling warm finally peace, love, harmony – with colours, sounds, light, no fear.
In an Unsafe place: the sensation is that they must get out! Must move, space is too small, oppressed, constricted. Once outside: space, Up, flying, birds, having wings finally peace, love, harmony – with colours, sounds, light, no fear.
Some typical Delusions also came out in the provings, though many of these have not yet made their way into our repertories.
- Fluttering in various areas of the body (apart from general sensation of fluttering)
- floating, fluctuating
- Having wings: this delusion is, in fact, more common amongst butterfly remedies than amongst bird remedies
- flying (also sensation of): this is quite common in both Lepidoptera and Aves.
6. MIASM Markedly Tubercular: as deduced from the need for change, the frenzied activity, the sense of oppression.
7. Map of Symptoms & Rubrics
In the following section, we have mapped symptoms first directly from the provings, then from rubrics chosen amongst those where at least 2 Lepidoptera remedies are present.
1. Lightheartedness, carefreeness and sweetness
2. Feeling energetic, uplifted wanting to dance, wander around, joyously, in brightly coloured attire.
3. Conversely: Feeling trapped, grabbed intolerance to constriction, to feeling held tight explosion.
4. Fear of dogs and earthquakes
– Amusement /Cheerfulness Euphoria/ Excitement /Laughing
– Anxiety / Fear / Helplessness
– Confusion of mind (location..) /Recognize, does not, surroundings/ location
– Concentration, difficult / Mistakes, making
– Confusion of Mind, identity, as to his/ as to his, sexual
– Mind, dress, dresses, cross-dressing Dreams, women, with penises
Gardeners save the day as butterfly habitats disappear / Monarchs rapidly losing breeding ground, but a small plot of milkweed in yard or on the roof can help save them
4 of 6 After the caterpillar grows to its full size, a protective shell, or chrysalis, forms around the insect. Its transformation into an adult occurs in this resting stage. University of Kansas photo by Orley "Chip" Taylor Show More Show Less
5 of 6 Finally, the shell breaks open and the butterfly emerges, flying off to find a mate and start the cycle anew. University of Kansas photo by Orley "Chip" Taylor Show More Show Less
For $16 worth of seeds, plus space and time, gardeners across the country can counter the precipitous loss of monarch butterfly habitat that has occurred in the past 10 years because of the spread of genetically engineered crops, urbanization and global warming.
"It has become increasingly evident that we have a major conservation crisis," said Orley "Chip" Taylor, professor of entomology at the University of Kansas and director of Monarch Watch.
Monarch Watch began in 1992, to inform the public about monarchs. The group has also conducted a monarch-tagging program involving 100,000 citizen scientists.
Two years ago, however, Taylor felt compelled to add a new element to Monarch Watch's mission, that of developing a nationwide network of monarch habitats, or way stations, to help stanch the rapid loss of monarch habitat.
Last year, Monarch Watch began offering a seed set of milkweeds and nectar plants suited to California.
"We need way stations everywhere here in California in the monarchs' summer breeding area, which begins just east of the coastal fog belt," said Mia Monroe, volunteer monarch coordinator for the Xerces Society, which is dedicated to invertebrate conservation. "We need them throughout the greater Bay Area in Palo Alto, Novato, San Rafael, Lafayette, Oakland up and down the Central Valley and over on the eastern side of the Sierra."
Taylor said: "Every migratory species needs patches of habitat where there are resources, and for monarchs that habitat has basically been patches spread across the whole continent. But now we have big holes out there where we just don't have any habitat at all for butterflies."
In the United States, there are two distinct groups of monarchs: an eastern population and a western population. The eastern population breeds east of the Rocky Mountains, and migrates to the oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) forests in the Transvolcanic Mountains of central Mexico each winter. The western monarch population breeds in areas west of the Rockies and spends winters along the California coast, clustering in stands of eucalyptus trees, Monterey pines and Monterey cypresses.
The decline in the eastern monarch butterfly population can be tracked by measuring the area the butterflies occupy in Mexico. Whereas eastern monarchs spread out over millions of acres during the summer, they cluster in a very small area in the winter.
"In the winter of 1996-1997, monarchs occupied 21 hectares in Mexico," said Taylor. "The highest we've seen in the last 10 years is 12 hectares." (One hectare equals approximately 2.5 acres.)
The western monarch spends winter in hundreds of sites strung along the California coast, from Sonoma down to Baja California, making it difficult to estimate population. Still, the trend is steadily downward.
"You go to the more well-studied sites like Pacific Grove, or Natural Bridges, or Pismo Beach, and there was a time when you would see 10,000, 40,000, 80,000 monarchs. And now you see maybe 4,000, 8,000, 10,000," said Monroe, who is also park manager of Muir Woods National Monument.
"At the edges of their winter ranges, there are now years where there are very few to no monarchs. In the 1980s and 1990s, even these fringe sites would have had thousands of monarchs."
A primary cause of eastern monarch habitat loss is the near-complete conversion of the United States' 75 million-acre soybean crop to 'Roundup Ready' soybeans over the past 10 years. These soybean and corn varieties, genetically engineered and owned by the Monsanto Co., are able to withstand repeated applications of glyphosate, an herbicide that causes most species of green plants to die back by disrupting the production of amino acids essential for plant growth.
The corn and soybean fields of the Midwest once provided about 50 percent of the eastern monarch's breeding ground. Monarchs congregated in these fields to lay their eggs because of the presence of various species of milkweed, especially the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which grows well where soils are disturbed annually.
Monarch larvae, or caterpillars, are specialist herbivores, and the only thing they'll eat from the moment they are born until they form a chrysalis is milkweed. By providing millions of acres of fertile ground for milkweed to grow on, agriculture, in a sense, helped support eastern monarch populations, despite its efforts not to.
Some milkweed varieties are designated as noxious weeds, and farmers have long used pre-emergence herbicides (those sprayed on fields before crop seedlings emerge) and cultivation to control them.
"Farmers used to spray Roundup early on, but milkweed actually emerges fairly late, and Roundup is a contact herbicide," said Karen Oberhauser of the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota.
"The farmers would also disk their fields once the crop was 6 to 10 inches tall, but that didn't really kill the milkweed it set the milkweed back a bit, but milkweed has an underground rhizome-like structure, and the milkweed would just start right back growing after cultivation."
In 2000, Oberhauser organized a formal count of milkweed in the Midwest, just before farmers began widespread use of 'Roundup Ready' crops.
Today, milkweed has all but disappeared from Midwestern agricultural fields. "I've gone back to the fields that I studied in 2000, and basically the milkweed is gone," said Oberhauser.
'Roundup Ready' crops aren't as pressing a threat to the western monarch population. California grows relatively little field corn and virtually no soybeans. California also lacks the common milkweed of the Midwest. Milkweed native to California tends to grow better in undisturbed soils, depending more upon native habitats and roadsides than on agricultural fields.
Unfortunately, undisturbed land is rapidly growing scarce in California. "All you have to do is look at a map of California every 10 years and see that there are tremendous natural areas that are now suburbia, which means milkweed and native nectar plants aren't as present that the number of roads is increasing, and each road is a hazard for monarchs to cross that the amount of natural surface water is decreasing. All these things are a hazard to any creature, but especially one like monarchs that rely upon plants, water and open space," said Monroe.
In California's Central Valley, prime summer breeding ground for the western monarch, more than 27,000 acres were urbanized just between 2000 and 2002. Meanwhile, many of the western monarch's wintering sites are on private land along California's coast and subject to intense development pressure.
Global climate change is expected to further habitat loss for both the eastern and western monarch populations by making their wintering site in Mexico wetter, and their California and Midwestern breeding grounds hotter.
Oberhauser has modeled the likely future climate scenarios on the forests of central Mexico. Her findings show that the monarch's wintering grounds will not become warmer but will become wetter, thereby increasing the likelihood of rain coinciding with freezing temperatures. Monarchs can withstand either wet or cold weather, but when the two occur together, monarchs suffer "catastrophic mortality."
In 2002, a combination of 48 hours of heavy rainfall followed by a drop in temperatures to 26 degrees Fahrenheit killed 80 percent of the overwintering butterflies. "There were places where the ground was knee-deep in butterflies," said Taylor of Monarch Watch.
Oberhauser has also modeled likely climate scenarios in the eastern monarchs' summer breeding areas. Her studies show that the Midwestern states will probably become too hot for monarchs, forcing the monarchs to migrate ever farther north during the summer. When the temperatures hover for long in the mid-90s and above, eggs and larvae suffer higher mortality, adult monarchs live shorter lives and milkweed begins to dry out, becoming a poorer food source.
Whether or not the eastern monarch will be able to extend its annual migration into Canada is unknown. Unknown, too, is whether the milkweed will be there to receive their eggs. "Generally plants don't migrate as quickly as animals," said Oberhauser.
The forecast doesn't bode well for monarchs in California either. Predicted increases in summer temperatures of 3 to 10 degrees in the Central Valley will affect a large portion of the western monarchs' breeding grounds, and to the extent that climate change increases the intensity of winter storms and winds along the California coast, their coastal habitat will suffer also.
Aligned against this triple threat to monarch habitat is a small but growing cadre of gardeners recruited by Monarch Watch. In April 2005, Monarch Watch began enlisting gardeners across the United States to create "monarch way stations" to start bridging the gaps in monarch habitat. "Loss of habitat is pinching all species. It's hard to figure out how to help the larger species, but for the butterflies there is something we can do," said Taylor. "The individual citizen can do a lot."
Way stations consist of patches of nectar plants (for the adult butterflies) and milkweed plants. A network of these simple way stations strung together across the continent can give the monarch a fighting chance for robust survival, even in the face of loss of millions of acres of habitat. "The monarch has an incredible capacity to find even small little patches of habitat. So if you create even a rooftop garden, just with plants in pots, it's extremely likely that a monarch butterfly will come through there and lay eggs on the milkweeds, and sip nectar from the nectar plants, and use that rooftop as a habitat," said Taylor.
Monarch Watch has developed a $16 way-station seed set of six milkweed species and six nectar plant species. (The number of seeds sent per plant variety ranges from 20 to 100 seeds.) Species include a mixture of annuals and perennials, and none of the varieties are invasive. The way-station seed sets work for home, school, park and business center gardens, as well as for field edges, roadsides and other vacant land.
Monarch Watch maintains a monarch way-station registry of qualifying habitat gardens to keep track of the growing network. To apply, way-station gardeners complete a questionnaire about the number and types of plants in their way stations, and their methods of fertilizing and irrigating (with sustainable practices encouraged). The registry is open to all way-station gardeners, whether they purchased seed from Monarch Watch or from another source.
Over the past two years, Monarch Watch has mailed out 3,000 seed packets and has registered 1,059 monarch way stations. Monarch Watch's goal is to register 10,000 way stations in three years. "We can change some negative impacts we're having on the environment by doing some fairly simple things," said Taylor.
-- Note: Milkweed does best in well-drained soil. Clay soils should be amended. Start seeds indoors or plant them directly in the soil after the last frost. The milky sap of milkweed is toxic to humans and pets. It is very bitter, however, so it is unlikely to be consumed in large enough quantities to cause a problem.
Despite initial fears, pollen from corn engineered to be toxic to many lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) larvae has proved harmless to monarch butterflies.
But that's not to say that the fears were unfounded. In 1999, Cornell University researchers published studies that demonstrated that pollen from the Bt corn varieties then on the market contained doses of Bt toxin that were highly lethal to monarch larvae. The study raised the concern that pollen from Bt corn plants would drift onto milkweed and be consumed by monarch larvae (caterpillars), which depend upon milkweed for sustenance. When the study was released, milkweed and monarchs were commonly found in and around Midwestern corn fields during the summer, and Midwestern corn and soybean fields provided at least 50 percent of the eastern monarchs' summer breeding habitat.
Fortunately for monarchs, these early Bt corn varieties proved to have poor agronomics, which prevented their widespread commercialization and adoption.
Subsequently released varieties of Bt corn performed better for farmers and happened to have a much less lethal dose of Bt toxin in their pollen.
A study released in 2004 did find, however, that fewer monarch larvae survived in Bt cornfields than non-Bt fields when monarch larvae were exposed not only to Bt corn pollen but also to anthers from Bt corn.
Though this latter study suggests that the effect of current Bt corn varieties on monarch larvae is still not benign, a larger threat to monarchs from genetically engineered crops has arisen with the widespread adoption of corn and soybean varieties engineered to withstand repeated applications of herbicides.
With the ability to repeatedly spray potent herbicides that cause every plant but the engineered corn and soybean to die back, farmers have almost completely eliminated milkweed from Midwestern agricultural fields.
To learn more about Monarch Watch's education outreach, butterfly tagging and way-station program, go to www.monarchwatch.org, or write Monarch Watch, University of Kansas, 1200 Sunnyside Ave., Lawrence, Kan. 66045-7534. Telephone: (888) 824-4464 or (785) 864-4441.
To purchase a monarch way-station seed kit, go to shop.monarchwatch.org. Click on "more" under the icon for the Monarch Way Station Seed Kit. A drop-down menu will give you the opportunity to select the California way-station seed kit.
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project: Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota invites individuals to join the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. Since 1997, the project has enlisted volunteers to collect data on monarch larvae. It is a "citizen science" project, and anyone with access to land with milkweed can participate. Visit the Web site at www.mlmp.org.
Peterson Middle School Nature Area: For more information about the Peterson Middle School Nature Area, or to arrange a field trip to the site, go to peterson.ca.campusgrid.net/home. On the left-hand side of the screen, click on "Nature Area, Cams, & News."
Monarch butterfly cycle of life
A monarch butterfly begins life as a tiny egg, above, which hatches into a caterpillar, right. After the caterpillar grows to its full size, a protective shell, or chrysalis, forms around the insect, below right. Its transformation into an adult occurs in this resting stage. Finally, the shell breaks open and the butterfly emerges (below), flying off to find a mate and start the cycle anew.
Metamorphosis: A Growth Chart of Myself and the Natural World in Snapshots.
Like many eager young students, my understanding of metamorphosis began with the charming story of the caterpillar, almost always fairytale-like in its delivery. Its beginning urged me to sympathy, portraying the caterpillar as a lonesome, unsightly creature who spends his days lounging on dandelion heads or in the green shadows of jungle gym tunnels. By the end of the story, my eyes widened with wonder. After a long season of deep slumber in a self-constructed chrysalis, the caterpillar emerges, now butterfly, now winged, soaring, a beautifully fragile flourish of flight.
It is worth noting, however, that metamorphosis is not exclusively a mechanism meant for “upgrading biologically” in a purely aesthetic sense. To quote marine biologist Jason Hodin, metamorphosis is a “substantial morphological transition between two multicellular phases in an organism’s life cycle, often marking the passage from a prereproductive to a reproductive life stage.” But perhaps I would delve into the whole process more intimately, unravel it until every creature that metamorphoses can find itself between the growth spurts, the transitions of transitions.
Tadpoles are tempted from the water with the promise of legs. Their metamorphosis begs for beginnings a clutch of quavering eggs stares up from the murky shallows of the pond, like the many glaucomic eyes of a fitful sea monster. Metamorphosis aches for resolution. Before it can allow the frog to learn of the land, it must snuff out the youthful tail and sculpt all that remains into a more dignified asymmetrical rump.
More important, metamorphosis challenges old identities while new ones form beneath. In his book The Mystery of Metamorphosis, Frank Ryan explains that at one point organisms were classified only by their adult forms. He goes on to explain the major flaw of this classification system, “that many larval forms just did not fit in with the extrapolation of the tree of life based on the adults.” Such observation is astute because it acknowledges that an organism’s identity encompasses its whole life cycle, not just the end of it, after it has fully shed away its old skin, corrected its awkward gait. Life cycles shape children into adolescents, adolescents into adults, tissue by tissue, organ by organ. But it is a mere shaping and reshaping, not a rebirth, not a revival. In the hands of metamorphosis, everybody emerges with his own creation dust in his eyes.
In the hands of metamorphosis, nobody is ever complete.
As a child, I went through a phase where I demanded that my mom call me nothing other than honey. I liked the way the name demanded attention. No matter how my mom said it— whether before a gush of praise or a torrent of scolding—it always came laced with affection. The final syllable’s lilt let off a glimmer that left me afraid of the darkness that would trail any other name. At summer camp, some kid called me hamster because of the way I walked, an antic of which I was not even aware—in either myself or in hamsters. It was the first time anyone ever analyzed the way I walk, and the last. Perhaps the description was accurate, at one point in my life. Perhaps I no longer walk that way. I walk with purpose. I walk because I can lose myself. I walk so that I can lose myself. I either imagine or recall my mom telling me once, “Honey, you were a late crawler, but you can sure walk fast.”
My legs were the first parts of myself I ever wanted to hide, perhaps in the shadow of an abandoned chrysalis or the gleaming scales and fins of a mermaid’s tail.
Luidia sarsi, an “unusually large” salmon-pink starfish, begins its life already prepared to shed away its juvenile self in favor of its adult form. Ryan describes the starfish and its larval stage as such:
Luidia’s larva is a diaphanous sprite that grows to an inch and a half long…The technical name for its body plan is “bipinnarian…” In appearance it resembles an uprooted vegetable, with a tangle of roots on one end and two broad and fleshy leaves on another. Unlike the adult starfish, with its radial symmetry, the larva is bilaterally symmetrical. The adult is conceived form a cluster of cells lining the internal cavity of the larva, and here it grows and matures, an alien existence independent of, and seemingly oblivious to, the larval body structures, axis, bilateral symmetry, and form, imbued with what can only be described as a complete disregard for every embodiment of its larval stage of existence (14).
From this description, I consider the starfish fortunate. It metamorphoses with little to no adolescent awkwardness, no hesitation, no nostalgia. I recall a day of my childhood, where I sat in the sunlight coming through the window of my bedroom. On this particular day, I became aware of my own skeleton and navigated it just through imagination. I settled between my ribcage like a songbird on a phone wire, hunted down the growing pains beginning in my thighs before they could manifest themselves as realities.
I used to associate symmetry with perfection, which is not quite accurate, considering that, with perhaps the exception of bilateral symmetry—in which an organism’s body can be dissected into two distinctly identical parts–symmetry is balanced out by imperfect means. Take the radial symmetry of a rose, for instance. As a whole, the flower is a unity of petals that leads the tentative form of a spiral staircase right into the rose’s core. Petals themselves, though, startlingly resemble the plucked feathers of a scarlet ibis, or some similar exotic bird whose feathers characterize it. To be such successful radially symmetrical creatures, Ryan explains, starfish and organisms with similar body structures need to undergo “one of the most spectacular metamorphoses in all of biology.” He explains the complexity of the phenomenon is great detail in this particular passage:
[This metamorphosis] can only be brought about through wholesale reorganization of the larval anatomy, including skin, skeletal structures, the vascular circulation, and the structure of the nervous system (10).
Interestingly, if I could eradicate any word from my vocabulary, that word would be perfect. It is an ugly word that causes more problems than it solves. Over the years, I have poured myself into it, allowed myself to bleed over its connotations of clarity and beauty, and shed somewhere between its two syllables.
Perfection is supposed to be the absence of darkness it is unscientific, sterile, riskless. Yet I chase it down, either instinctively like a wolf with its muzzle to the moon or emotionally, like a sinner who keeps turning inwardly to cast stones at himself.
When I was in middle school, I spent much of my time avoiding mirrors. Instead, I would rely on my shadow to reveal the state of my hair and the fit of my clothes. If you know anything about shadows, particularly your own, you know that they never settle for the truth. They either over-exaggerate or undermine what casts them, dulling signature features such as facial expressions and the nuances of skin tone. They play with height and mass, either reducing you to the contour of a Russian doll in some mid-stage or stretching you as far as the walls will sprawl until your shadow-head hits the ceiling.
When I eventually relented to mirrors, first the one that sits behind my bedroom door, I noted that they too can be deceitful, only instead of relying on both the darkness and the light to deceive the way shadows do, they take in just the light, manipulate it, highlight features and lead to the scrutiny of others. Strangely, light and darkness are how I have come to better understand metamorphosis. Between life cycles, darkness interrupts light, light darkness.
Perhaps the sea urchin does not look like much. A mess of dark, spiny structures, the sea urchin looks more like some primitive-albeit-organic weapon than it does any remarkable form of ocean life. Even so, the urchin’s metamorphosis is one of self-discovery. Some time ago, I read an article in LiveScience that described the metamorphosis of the sea urchin most elegantly, describing its “growing up” as a sort of “turning yourself inside out.”
The sea urchin, in its larval form, perhaps captures the rebellious spirit of adolescence in that its larval stage is “free swimming,” making its peers the equally small and free-spirited plankton. Eventually, it matures into a languid, spiny adult that settles into a sedentary life on the ocean’s floor. Histamine, a “common signaling molecule” that is infamously associated with allergies in humans, is largely responsible for the metamorphosis of the sea urchin. The transformation is remarkably brief, without the showiness of a chrysalis’s shivering open, and is often completed within an hour, in a series of internal chemical cues triggered by the environment.
The article went on to describe an even more striking characteristic of the sea urchin larva: that it carries around a “backpacklike package around with [it] that contains adult structures, including many appendages, called tube feet.”
Strangely, after reading this, my first thought was, “Is the sea urchin lost, or is he running from something?” I am not sure why maybe that is just evidence that I take far too much comfort in anthropomorphizing animals, trying with wonder, perhaps even in desperation, to draw parallels between them and us, them and me specifically. Perhaps, in my empathetic aching, I take comfort in viewing the sea urchin as a sort of aimless wanderer who carries the contents of his own blueprint on his back, like a young pilgrim just slightly aware of his purpose.
When I was a freshman in high school, during a week called Suicide Prevention, a speaker visited my health class and gave everyone a card with the suicide hotline typed on it. She then spoke about self-harm, depression, how both are much more complex than feeling sad. Sometimes people ache, but they can’t call that ache a pain. It’s weightier. It does not pound like a headache instead, it timidly takes its seat and kicks the floor when the mind goes silent, like a student growing restless in math class. Sometimes it comes gradually, pooling over the body like light through closed blinds. Sometimes it arrives suddenly, uninvited, and there is no way to deal with it other than to invite it inside, let it perch on the chest, settle inside an unknown pit in the stomach.
The speaker told of warning signs that may indicate a friend is contemplating suicide. I remember a list of phrases on a carefully prepared handout, all printed out with purpose, like a guide to birdcalls. One in particular struck me: “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.” It must have had a greater impact on me than I thought it could because several days later, while packing my backpack for the day at my locker, I uttered a variant of it: “Just let me fall asleep and never wake up.” I do not remember why I said it. I do not remember being particularly depressed, just burnt out, sick of building my self-worth completely out of academics and my own words, sick of feeling as though in order for peers to accept me for who I am, I always have to rebuild my identity from the ground up just to prove, at best, that I am smart enough to help them with their homework. No matter why I said it, a girl whose locker was situated right next to mind, who also happened to be in my health class, overheard me, shot a look of sympathy, and said, “I hope you feel better.”
Eventually, I felt better. Eventually, I took back what I said, internally, and apologized to myself. Truthfully, I never wanted to fall asleep and never wake up. I just wanted to turn myself inside out for a little while and emerge better understanding how my skin fits me not loosely like a hospital gown, but snugly like Saran wrap over something worth preserving. I just wanted to close my eyes, sit alone in darkness for the evening, come out into the dusk without my school uniform on, without anything covering my legs for once.
For gym class, I would always change my uniform shirt with my designated gym top but would never exchange my pants for my shorts. At first, the gym teacher was perplexed, but after about a week, she stopped paying any attention to it and never marked it against me. I braved out into the gymnasium with shorts one day and felt half-naked. My legs were foreign to me, or maybe that is what I told myself to cope with the sting of cold air I felt on them whenever the janitor came through the gymnasium entrance. These legs were not mine. When I ran laps, those were not my feet hitting the gleaming floor. Instead, a nimble faun sprinted beside me, youthfully, while I wallowed in the deeps of some algae-cloaked water, unwilling to step into the sunlight of a new life stage.
“I said to the sun, ‘Tell me about the big bang.’ The sun said, ‘it hurts to become.”
–From “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out” by Andrea Gibson. Throughout his book, Frank Ryan stresses again and again that metamorphosis is taxing on most organisms’ bodies. Contrarily, he portrays metamorphosis to be dynamic and transcendent, like plate tectonics no transformation is a stagnant act. One of Ryan’s most poignant passages juxtaposes both metamorphosis and biological destruction with such force:
[The] metamorphosis is accompanied by massive internal change coupled with catastrophic destruction of the larval tissues. Huge chunks of the larval body, its tissues and organs, are digested and reabsorbed, or simply discarded (40).
This passage invites so many trite insights celebrating the theme of growth and change. While I wish to spare both myself and the reader such stale discussion, I would like to ache over these words, my words, for a moment. I would like to lament but at the same time rejoice at the thought of transformation.
I often remind myself to take risks, often in the form of reluctant self-talk. Risks tend to yield less than perfection, which is hard to cope with at first. But then I recall the evolutionary tree of life, how many remarkable creatures that stay the same never maintain a high place in their respective ecosystem, a flourishing one at least. I know all of the worn motivation phrases: take a leap, take a chance, take flight. They sound like the commands an emerging instinct might give, in a new startling voice, to the butterfly who has just grown out of the darkness and aware of its own wings.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Often, this adage serves as a lament, uttered with a deep sigh and a distant gaze indicative of troubled brooding. Even in a less dismal tone, the phrase implies a stagnancy of innovation and growth however, when I analyze it in the context of metamorphosis and evolution, I come away wanting to cocoon myself in the double helix of some Cambrian explosion-born creature’s genetic code, revel in that darkness for a moment before inflicting a slit toward the sunlight, so that I may emerge—not unafraid, but not without complete reluctance either.
Melina Papadopoulos is currently a junior at Baldwin Wallace University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Roanoke Review, River and Sound Review, Stone Highway Review, apt: Online, among others.
Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.
Contact Rachel for health coaching, weight loss, strategies, recipes, detoxes, cleanses or help getting off sugar. Click here.
Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it’s magical.
Persuading The Body To Regenerate Its Limbs
Deer can regrow their antlers, and humans can replace their liver. What else might be possible?
Each year, researchers from around the world gather at Neural Information Processing Systems, an artificial-intelligence conference, to discuss automated translation software, self-driving cars, and abstract mathematical questions. It was odd, therefore, when Michael Levin, a developmental biologist at Tufts University, gave a presentation at the 2018 conference, which was held in Montreal. Fifty-one, with light-green eyes and a dark beard that lend him a mischievous air, Levin studies how bodies grow, heal, and, in some cases, regenerate. He waited onstage while one of Facebook’s A.I. researchers introduced him, to a packed exhibition hall, as a specialist in “computation in the medium of living systems.”
Levin began his talk, and a drawing of a worm appeared on the screen behind him. Some of the most important discoveries of his career hinge on the planarian—a type of flatworm about two centimetres long that, under a microscope, resembles a cartoon of a cross-eyed phallus. Levin is interested in the planarian because, if you cut off its head, it grows a new one simultaneously, its severed head grows a new tail. Researchers have discovered that no matter how many pieces you cut a planarian into—the record is two hundred and seventy-nine—you will get as many new worms. Somehow, each part knows what’s missing and builds it anew. What Levin showed his audience was something even more striking: a video of a two-headed planarian. He had cut off the worm’s tail, then persuaded the organism to grow a second head in its place. No matter how many times the extra head was cut off, it grew back.
The most astonishing part was that Levin hadn’t touched the planarian’s genome. Instead, he’d changed the electrical signals among the worm’s cells. Levin explained that, by altering this electric patterning, he’d revised the organism’s “memory” of what it was supposed to look like. In essence, he’d reprogrammed the worm’s body—and, if he wanted to, he could switch it back.
Levin had been invited to present at an A.I. conference because his work is part of a broader convergence between biology and computer science. In the past half century, scientists have come to see the brain, with its trillions of neural interconnections, as a kind of computer. Levin extends this thinking to the body he believes that mastering the code of electrical charges in its tissues will give scientists unprecedented control over how and where they grow. In his lab, he has coaxed frogs to regenerate severed legs, and tadpoles to grow new eyeballs on their stomach.
“Regeneration is not just for so-called lower animals,” Levin said, as an image of Prometheus appeared on the screen behind him. Deer can regenerate antlers humans can regrow their liver. “You may or may not know that human children below the age of approximately seven to eleven are able to regenerate their fingertips,” he told the audience. Why couldn’t human-growth programs be activated for other body parts—severed limbs, failed organs, even brain tissue damaged by stroke?
Levin’s work involves a conceptual shift. The computers in our heads are often contrasted with the rest of the body most of us don’t think of muscles and bones as making calculations. But how do our wounds “know” how to heal? How do the tissues of our unborn bodies differentiate and take shape without direction from a brain? When a caterpillar becomes a moth, most of its brain liquefies and is rebuilt—and yet researchers have discovered that memories can be preserved across the metamorphosis. “What is that telling us?” Levin asked. Among other things, it suggests that limbs and tissues besides the brain might be able, at some primitive level, to remember, think, and act. Other researchers have discussed brainless intelligence in plants and bacterial communities, or studied bioelectricity as a mechanism in development. But Levin has spearheaded the notion that the two ideas can be unified: he argues that the cells in our bodies use bioelectricity to communicate and to make decisions among themselves about what they will become.
Levin’s work has appeared both in textbooks and in Japanese manga. He publishes between thirty and forty papers a year, and his collaborators include biologists, computer scientists, and philosophers. He is convincing a growing number of biologists that it is possible to decipher, and even speak, the bioelectric code. Tom Skalak, a bioengineer and the vice-president for research emeritus at the University of Virginia, told me that Levin plays a subversive role in a field that has tended to focus on how genes direct growth. “He goes well beyond the dogma of ‘a gene makes a protein, and the protein makes a cell phenotype, and if you just understand genes and proteins you’ll understand everything,’ ” Skalak said.
Grasping the bioelectric code, Levin believes, will give us a new way of interacting with our bodies. “In an important way, control over three-dimensional shape is the pressing problem of biomedicine,” he told me. “If you think about it, everything other than infection could be handled if we controlled shape. So birth defects, traumatic injury, aging, degenerative disease, cancer.” He continued, “If we could understand what three-dimensional shape really was, we could do almost anything.”
Levin was born in Moscow in 1969. As a child, he spent hours looking at bugs and electrical parts. One day, to distract him when he was having an asthma attack, his father turned the family’s TV set around and opened up the back. Levin stared, marvelling, he told me, that “somebody knew exactly how to put all the parts in the exact correct order to make the cartoons come out the other end.” He started collecting bugs in earnest at the age of seven, around the same time that he took up books on physics and astronomy. “As amazing as the TV set is, this is even more so,” he recalled thinking, of how an egg transforms into a caterpillar, then a chrysalis, then a butterfly. “It becomes this amazing little robot that will run around and do things and have a life of its own.” With the bugs on his mind, he learned to build a radio by taking one apart.
At eight or nine, with the help of his father, Levin started reading books about cybernetics—the study of “control systems,” created in the late nineteen-forties by the computing pioneer Norbert Wiener. A cybernetic system, such as a thermostat, controls itself using feedback: a thermometer detects a change in room temperature, and then turns on the heat or cooling system until the desired temperature has been reached. Cybernetic systems work through a kind of internal conversation, and can accomplish surprisingly complex tasks, such as maintaining a car’s speed while on cruise control or regulating an animal’s metabolism. It seemed reasonable to think that the developing body itself was cybernetic: its many parts used inner feedback mechanisms to align around shared goals.
Levin’s parents faced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. In 1978, when he was nine, they took advantage of a visa program for Soviet Jews and moved the family to Lynn, Massachusetts, spending three months on the way as refugees in Italy. Levin’s father, who had programmed computers for the Soviet weather service, landed a job at Compugraphic, a typesetting company. He brought home old equipment, including a computer with a black-and-white monitor that ran only Fortran, an early programming language. When Levin told his parents that he wanted to play Pac-Man, his father said that he could do it only if he programmed his own version.
By the time Levin succeeded, he’d moved past playing to programming. He’d also set up a rudimentary biology lab in his bedroom, ordering dangerous chemicals shipped to the made-up “St. Augustine School of Science” at his home address. He tested whether bean plants could navigate mazes as they grew, and investigated their responses to magnetic fields.
In 1986, when Levin was seventeen, he and his father attended the World’s Fair, in Vancouver. There, at a used-book store, he discovered “The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life,” a scientific memoir in which Robert O. Becker, an orthopedic surgeon, described the experiments he had carried out on salamanders and other animals, exploring the role that electricity played in their development and in their ability to regenerate limbs. (Salamanders can regenerate their severed limbs and tails if you remove a leg and graft on a tail, the tail morphs into a leg.) “It looked like everything I was thinking about,” Levin said. Reading his way through Becker’s bibliography, he learned that medical interest in electricity was thousands of years old. Anteros, a former slave of the Roman emperor Tiberius, had stepped on an electric fish at the beach and found relief for his gout in seventeenth-century Europe, “medical electricity” was used to treat impotence and other ailments. In the nineteenth century, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani had argued for the existence of an inherent “animal electricity,” showing that touching the end of a frog’s severed nerve to the outside of one of its muscles completed a circuit, making the muscle twitch. This phenomenon, called galvanism, became a plot device in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
In the twentieth century, the reality of bioelectricity began to come into focus. In 1909, it was discovered that larval salamanders regenerate faster when electricity courses through their aquarium water in the following decades, researchers measured distinct bioelectrical patterns associated with development and wound healing. Eventually, biologists came to understand that electricity is integral to cellular life. Cell membranes are studded with tiny valves known as ion channels, which maintain the cell’s negatively charged interior and positively charged exterior by allowing charged atoms called ions to flow in and out. Some ion channels open or close in response to the voltage outside, leading the cell to change its behavior in response to electrical signals and thereby creating a feedback loop. Cells employ the bioelectric system as a kind of intercellular internet they use it to build intricate and expansive communication networks that control the transcription of genes, the contraction of muscles, and the release of hormones. Many drugs target ion channels, using them to treat arrhythmia, epilepsy, and chronic pain.
When Levin arrived for college at Tufts, in 1988, he decided to major in computer science, so that he could work on artificial intelligence. But he also found himself contemplating all the creatures—the “little robots”—that seemed to contain the secret of computing. “There are amoebas that are storing memories,” he recalled thinking at the time. “There are eggs that develop into amazingly patterned creatures.” He added a biology major.
Levin had been calling researchers and reading everything he could on the topic of bioelectricity. He showed his reading list to Susan Ernst, a biologist at Tufts she was impressed, but told him that she had no room in her lab for more undergraduates. The next day, she changed her mind. “I said out loud to myself, ‘How can I consider myself a teacher and turn him away?’ ” she told me. She called Levin, and they decided that he would apply electromagnetic fields to sea-urchin embryos. “We found that, sure enough, it screwed up development pretty good,” he said.
Levin struck Ernst as “irrepressible.” He began borrowing not just equipment but personnel from other labs: Ernst, who is now retired, grew used to seeing students she didn’t know at her microscopes, working on Levin’s experiments. As an undergraduate, even as he ran a small backup-software company with his father, Levin was the primary author of two papers published with Ernst. When he earned a Ph.D. at Harvard Medical School, in 1996, for groundbreaking work on how bodies learn to distinguish left from right, his dissertation adviser, the geneticist Clifford Tabin, gave him a congratulatory toast. “You are the most likely to crash and burn and never be heard from again,” Tabin recalls saying. “You’re also the most likely to do something really fundamentally important, that no one else on earth would have done, that will really change the field.”
Levin ran a developmental-biology lab at Harvard’s Forsyth Institute until he returned to Tufts as a professor, in 2008. In 2016, the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen awarded him a four-year, ten-million-dollar grant, with which he established the Allen Discovery Center its stated mission is to crack the morphogenetic code—the system that “orchestrates how cells communicate to create and repair complex anatomical shapes.”
When I visited Levin’s lab at Tufts, a few months before the pandemic, he steered me down a hall lined with enlarged journal covers featuring his work. We passed an administrative area—“This is the human space,” he said—then visited a microscopy suite, a chemical room, and a large lab finally, we made our way to “worm world”—a room where industrial-sized incubators hummed. Levin pointed through an incubator’s glass doors to racks of Tupperware containers, each holding thousands of planaria swimming in Poland Spring water and eating organic beef liver: “The good life,” he said.
The containers were casserole dishes filled with floating specks. Some contained worms with strange heads—spiky, tubular, hat-shaped—while one held the famous two-headed worms. “We got one worm from Japan in 2000, and we chopped it up into pieces,” Levin explained. Most of the inhabitants of worm world were descendants of the same parent.
When animals develop, they don’t follow a script. Instead, responding to their environment, the cells negotiate and feel their way toward a final form. A fertilized egg divides, and divides again, creating a hollow ball of cells called a blastula genes instruct these cells to release chemicals, and other cells, reacting to those chemical concentrations, decide to migrate elsewhere or to develop into specific types of tissue. Other influences—oxygen, nutrients, hormones, sometimes toxins—further shape gestation.
It’s tempting to think that genes contain blueprints for the body and its parts. But there is no map or instruction set for an organ inside a cell. “The first decisions you make are not behavior decisions, they’re growth decisions,” Levin told me, and the most crucial choices—“where your eyes go, where your brain goes, which part’s going to be a leg, which part’s going to be an arm”—emerge without a central directive. Kelly McLaughlin, a molecular biologist at the Allen Center, explained that it was simple “to take stem cells and cause them to make heart cells beating in a dish.” And yet, she went on, “those heart cells are a sheet of cells, beating in a dish, flat.” Cells turn into three-dimensional organs by interacting with one another, like water molecules forming an eddy.
Mathematicians and computer scientists, versed in the language of self-organizing systems—crystals, traffic, storms—have turned out to possess useful conceptual tools for understanding development. “One is modularity,” Levin said: elements of a system can be connected in a module, and then triggered “anywhere, at any time, in new contexts.” Another is the “test-operate-exit” loop: “Keep moving, until the error of anatomy is small enough, and then stop.” Cell groups, he said, are capable of following lots of different plans they shift their goals depending on what their neighbors are doing.
Down the hall from worm world, Levin showed me the lab’s microinjection room. Thousands of frog embryos are transferred there twice a week, so that researchers can analyze their developmental decisions. The scientists’ first task is to eavesdrop on bioelectric patterning. In 2011, Dany Spencer Adams, a postdoc in Levin’s lab, bathed a frog embryo in a voltage-sensitive dye in the area of tissue where the face would later form, she saw an electrical pattern, which Levin described as resembling “a paint-by-numbers puzzle.” It was a glowing image of a face.
The researchers suspected that, if they could re-create this “electric face” elsewhere in the body, they would be able to grow a face there, too. They induced the cells in what would become the embryos’ stomach to build extra ion channels, encouraging an electric image of an eye. In the spots where they placed this paint-by-numbers pattern, some of the embryos developed extra eyes. In time, their nervous systems began building optic nerves to connect the new eyes to the brain by way of the spinal cord.
It was as though the team had spoken the keyword “eye.” The cells started talking about building one, and everything else followed. Not all patterns are as simple to interpret or create as the electric face prompting the regeneration of a missing ear or hand, Levin said, may require detecting and mastering bioelectric patterns that are abstract and hard to decipher. Still, it may be possible to find keywords for them—smaller pieces of the pattern that can get cells coöperating along the right lines.
Patterns aren’t the only way to inspire coöperation. In 2018, Levin’s team attached a plastic cuff containing progesterone, a hormone that alters the behavior of ion channels, to the stump where a frog had once had a leg. They left the cuff on for twenty-four hours, then observed for about a year. Ordinarily, a frog that’s lost a leg will regrow a cartilaginous spike in its place. But the frogs in the experiment grew paddle-like limbs. About nine months later, little toes started to emerge. Levin thinks that, eventually, the same kind of cuff could be used on humans you might wear one for a few months, long enough to persuade your body to restart its growth. (Ideally, researchers would find a way to speed development, too otherwise, you’d be stuck with a tiny arm for years.)
Levin was wary of showing me any mouse experiments. He has grown tired of hearing his work compared to the sinister alchemy described in “Frankenstein.” “That story is about scientific irresponsibility,” he said. Although his research is in many ways unusual, it is ordinary in its treatment of animals—by some estimates, American researchers experiment on more than twenty-five million a year. “I get two types of e-mails and phone calls,” Levin told me. “Some of the people call and say, ‘How dare you do these things?’ for various reasons—animal rights, playing God, whatever. And then most call and they say, ‘What the fuck is taking you so long?’ ” From time to time, Levin receives a call from a would-be volunteer. “I’m going to come down to your lab,” he recalled one of them saying, “and I’ll be your guinea pig. I want my foot back.”
None of the developmental biologists I spoke with expressed any doubt that we would someday be able to regrow human limbs. They disagreed only about how long it would take us to get there, and about how, exactly, regrowth would work. Other projects explore growing body parts in labs for transplantation 3-D-printing them whole, using tissue cells flipping genetic switches (“master regulators”) or injecting stem cells into residual limbs. The solution may eventually involve a medley of techniques.
Levin’s vision isn’t confined to limb regrowth he’s interested in many other forms of morphogenesis, or tissue formation, and in how they can be modelled using computers. He led me down the hall to a room where an elaborate, waist-high machine glowed. The device consisted of twelve petri dishes suspended above an array of lights and cameras, which were hooked up to a cluster of high-powered computers. He explained that the system was designed to measure tadpole and planarian I.Q.
In a study published in 2018, Levin’s team bathed frog embryos in nicotine. As they expected, the frogs exhibited a range of neural deformities, including missing forebrains. The researchers then used a piece of software called betse—the BioElectric Tissue Simulation Engine—that a member of the Allen Center, Alexis Pietak, had built. In this virtual world, they applied various drugs and observed their effects on both bioelectric signalling and brain development, hoping to find an intervention that would reverse the nicotine’s damage. The software “made a prediction that one specific type of ion channel can be exploited for just such an effect,” Levin said. The team tried the drug on real embryos that had been damaged by nicotine, and found that their brains rearranged themselves into the proper shape. The software, the researchers wrote, had allowed for “a complete rescue of brain morphology.”
The I.Q. machine gave them another way to measure the extent of the rescue. Inside it, colored L.E.D.s illuminate petri dishes from below, dividing them into zones of red and blue when a grown tadpole ventures into the red, it receives a brief shock. Levin found that normal tadpoles uniformly learned to avoid the red zones, while those that had been exposed to nicotine learned to do so only twelve per cent of the time. But those treated with the bioelectricity-recalibrating drug learned eighty-five per cent of the time. Their I.Q.s recovered.
Researchers disagree about the role that bioelectricity plays in morphogenesis. Laura Borodinsky, a biologist who studies development and regeneration at the University of California, Davis, told me that “there are many things that we still need to discover” about how the process works, including “how the genetic program and the bioelectrical signals are intermingled.” Tom Kornberg, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, studies another intercellular system that is similar to bioelectricity it consists of morphogens, special proteins that cells release in order to communicate with one another. Kornberg’s lab investigates how morphogens move among cells and tell them what to do. “What is the vocabulary? What’s the language?” Kornberg said, in reference to morphogenesis. There is probably more than one.
Tabin, Levin’s former adviser and the chair of genetics at Harvard Medical School, told me that he is “agnostic” about how bioelectricity should be understood. Levin describes bioelectricity as a “code.” But, Tabin said, “there’s a difference between being a trigger to initiate morphogenesis versus storing information in the form of a code.” He offered an analogy. “Electricity is required to run my vacuum cleaner,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there’s necessarily an electric code for vacuuming.” The current flowing through the outlet isn’t telling the vacuum what to do. It’s just turning it on.
Levin thinks that bioelectricity is more complex than that. The right bioelectrical signal can transform a Dustbuster into a Dyson—or a tail into a head. Tweaking the signal produces highly specific outcomes—a head that’s spiky, tubular, or hat-shaped—without the need to adjust individual genes, ion channels, or cells. “You can hack the system to make the changes,” Levin said. “Currently, there’s no competing technology that can do these things.”
Levin’s work has philosophical dimensions. Recently, he watched “Ex Machina”—a sci-fi film, directed by Alex Garland, in which a young programmer is introduced to Ava, a robot created by his tech-mogul boss. Unnerved by how beguilingly realistic Ava is, the hero slices his own arm open in search of wires. Since childhood, Levin, too, has wondered what we are made of having become a father himself, he enjoys talking about such questions with his sons, who are now teen-agers. Once, when his older son was six or seven, Levin asked him how a person could be sure that he hadn’t been created mere seconds ago, and provided with a set of implanted memories. “I didn’t really think about what the consequences for a kid might be,” Levin said, laughing and a little embarrassed. “He was upset for about a week.”
Our intuitions tell us that it would be bad to be a machine, or a group of machines, but Levin’s work suggests precisely this reality. In his world, we’re robots all the way down. A bioelectrical signal may be able to conjure an eye out of a stomach, but eye-making instructions are contained neither in the cells’ genome nor in the signal. Instead, both collectively and individually, the cells exercise a degree of independence during the construction process.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett, who is Levin’s colleague at Tufts, has long argued that we shouldn’t distinguish too sharply between the sovereign, self-determining mind and the brute body. When we spoke, Dennett, who has become one of Levin’s collaborators, was in bed at a Maine hospital, where he was recovering from hip surgery. “I find it very comforting to reflect on the fact that billions of little agents are working 24/7 to restore my muscles, heal my wounds, strengthen my legs,” he said.
In our discussion of Levin’s work, Dennett asked me to imagine playing chess against a computer. He told me that there were a few ways I could look at my opponent. I could regard it as a metal box filled with circuits I could see it as a piece of software, and inspect its code and I could relate to it as a player, analyzing its moves. In reality, of course, a chess computer offers more than three levels of explanation. The body allows more still: genetics, biophysics, biochemistry, bioelectricity, biomechanics, anatomy, psychology, and finer gradations in between, all these levels acting together, each playing an integral role. Levin doesn’t claim to understand the entire system, nor does he maintain that bioelectricity is the only important level. It’s just one where he’s found some leverage. He likens revising an organism’s body through bioelectric stimulation to launching software applications. “When you want to switch from Photoshop to Microsoft Word, you don’t get out your soldering iron,” he said.
In modifying the body, Levin is more whisperer than micromanager he makes suggestions, then lets the cells talk among themselves. “Michael has these brilliant examples of how individual cells communicate with each other,” Dennett said. But the reverse is also true: when communication breaks down, cells can go haywire. Consider cancer, Levin said. It can be created by genetic damage, but also by disruptions in bioelectric voltage. In an experiment reported in 2016, Levin’s team injected cancer-causing mRNA into frog embryos, and found that injected areas first lost their electrical polarity, then developed tumor-like growths. When the researchers counteracted the depolarization, some of the tumors disappeared. In Levin’s terms, the cancer cells had lost the thread of the wider conversation, and begun to reproduce aimlessly, without coöperating with their neighbors. Once communications had been restored, they were able to make good decisions again.
Having built radios as a kid, Levin now hopes to assemble bodies from first principles. His ultimate goal is to build what he calls an “anatomical compiler”—a biological-design program in which users can draw the limbs or organs they want the software would tell them where and how to modify an organism’s bioelectric gradients. “You would say, ‘Well, basically like a frog, but I’d like six legs—and I’d like a propeller over here,’ ” he explained. Such a system could fix birth defects, or allow the creation of new biological shapes that haven’t evolved in nature. With funding from darpa—a federal research agency contained within the Department of Defense—he is exploring a related possibility: building machines made from animal cells. Recently, Josh Bongard, a computer scientist at the University of Vermont, designed a computer model in which small robotic cubes connect, creating microrobots that might someday clean up toxic waste or perform microsurgery. Levin took stem and cardiac cells from frogs and sculpted them into blobs that approximated the robot designs they began working together, matching the simulations. Bongard likened Levin to a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat. “After a while, you start asking not just what’s in the hat,” he said, “but how deep does the inside of that hat go?”
On a warm afternoon, Levin and I drove out to Middlesex Fells Reservation—a twenty-six-hundred-acre state park with more than a hundred miles of trails. We set out through the woods along Spot Pond, a large reservoir where people sail and kayak in the summer. As we walked, our bodies worked up a light sweat. Occasionally, Levin stopped to wonder at fungi clinging to a tree trunk, or to look under a rock for creepy crawlies. Spotting an ant, he recalled trying to feed ants as a child and being surprised at their stubbornness. He noted that planaria can have different personalities—even clones of the same worm. He interrupted his comments on neural decoding to study a plant. “Look at the colors on these berries,” he said. “What the hell? I’ve never seen that before. It looks almost like candy. Let me get a picture of this.”
I jokingly asked Levin if, when looking at nature, he saw computer code raining down, as in “The Matrix.” “That’s a funny question,” he said. “I do not see the Matrix code, but I’m often taking pictures or kayaking or something, and thinking about this stuff.” I asked him if he saw squirrels and trees differently from the way others do. Not a squirrel, he said, because everyone recognizes it as a cognitive agent—a system with beliefs and desires. But a cell or a plant, for sure.
“I look everywhere, and I ask the question What’s the cognitive nature of this system? What’s it like to be a—” He paused. “What’s your sensory world like, what decisions are you making, what memories do you have, if any? What predictions do you make? Do you anticipate future events? Slime molds can anticipate regular stimuli. I look for cognition everywhere. In some places you don’t find it, and that’s fine, but I think I see it broader than many people.”
We stopped to look at a log and found a red splotch that appeared to be a slime mold.
“I don’t know what it actually is,” Levin said. “I’m not much of a zoologist.”
Bending down, he peeled off some bark: a second splotch. Researchers have found that, if a slime mold learns something and then crawls over and touches another mold, it can pass on its memory in 2016, a pair of French scientists showed how one mold could teach another to find some hard-to-reach food through a gooey mind meld.
“That, I think about all the time,” Levin said. “What does it mean to encode information in a way that, almost like a brain transplant, you can literally give it to another creature?”
We left the log and continued on. Lichen spotted the rocks, and chipmunks chattered in the trees. There was electricity all around us.
Published in the print edition of the May 10, 2021, issue, with the headline “Growing It Back.”
Matthew Hutson, a science writer living in New York City, is the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”
Natural Areas Notebook
Polish up your binocular lenses and head outside, dear readers! The trees, shrubs and marshes are filled with a rainbow of colorful birds. And though some of these visitors may choose to stay and raise young here, others are just passing through. So time’s a-wasting!
The second and third weeks of May are probably the busiest weeks of the spring for those of us who enjoy birds. New birds arrive daily at our feeders and we rush to the window. Flocks gather at birding ‘hot spots” like Tawas Point in Michigan or Magee Marsh in Ohio and we pack up the car and take off to see them. Familiar birdsong in the treetops prompts the birding group to go silent and look up.
A tree full of busy warblers captivated the birding group in May 2018.
Scientists theorize that the tiny warblers, and many other spring birds, may have made long, arduous journeys through the night ever since their ancestors in the tropics experimented with moving north in the spring. As the glaciers retreated, some of the tropical or sub-tropical birds kept pushing on a bit further north each spring, seeking more sunlit hours and different or more nourishing food. Those ancestors liked what they found – longer summer days, an abundance of blossoms and insects and plenty of nesting sites. And lucky for us, they eventually arrived here in Oakland Township and liked what they saw.
Photos and text
by Cam Mannino
This year, I got curious about where our visiting warblers spent the winter. How far had they traveled to reach Michigan from their wintering grounds? I also wanted to be sure which birds you and I need to look for right now, before they fly off to breed further north and which ones we can relax about a bit, because they’ll spend the summer with us, raising their young in our parks and yards. The more I learn about nature, the more I feel myself embedded in the natural world – and I like that feeling.
So here’s what I’ve learned about some visiting warblers so far this month. These birds are all ones I’ve seen this spring. But I’m using some of last year’s photos when they’re better than some of the ones I took during this year’s cold, rainy spring. Next week, I hope to explore the fellow travelers, other beautiful migrators that accompanied this year’s warblers and will be spending the summer with us as well.
Some Warblers are Here Only Occasionally or are Just Passing Through
Evidently for some birds, our area is a good place to get some R & R, but locations further north have charms that lure them on. Perhaps these migrators long for cooler summer temperatures, deeper forests, or a reliable food source that they need or simply prefer.
At Magee Marsh in Ohio, my husband and I saw our first male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), named for the bright yellow robes of Roman Catholic papal clerks. You can’t see this male’s lovely blue-gray wings in my photo because he wouldn’t stop singing his four tweet song. I think his clear golden feathers with a peachy blur are probably the prettiest yellow feathers I’ve ever seen! Prothonotary numbers are dwindling due to a lack of forested wetlands in the U.S. and the loss of mangrove forests along the Atlantic Coast of Central and northern South America, where they spend the winter. They more commonly breed in Missouri, Arkansas and the south but a few do choose to breed in our area. Some were seen along the Clinton River Trail in the last couple of years. So, enjoy a rare treat if you spot this beautiful warbler!
The Prothonotary Warbler has blue-gray wings that don’t show here because he was too busy singing to hop about!
The Blackpoll Warbler can fly over the Atlantic for 3 days nonstop on its way to its wintering grounds. Though still quite numerous, their numbers have fallen 88% in the last 40 years.
This male Magnolia Warbler with its black necklace and mask was on its way to Northern Michigan or Canada because he prefers to breed in dense conifer forests. And he’s already traveled a long way since he winters in the Caribbean or Central America.
This male Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) spent his winter in the Caribbean or Central America. He’s on his way to the conifer forests of Northern Michigan of Canada.
Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) travel super long distances, too. According to Wikipedia, they winter in the mountains from Colombia to Peru at heights of 2,000-8,000 feet. They also prefer to breed in coniferous forests, especially ones with hemlocks. So they’re heading farther north to upper Michigan and Canada. While there, they’ll spend most of their time in the high canopy, plucking moth and butterfly larvae from the treetops. So the best time to see them is during migration when they’re down at eye level.
The Blackburnian Warbler travels here from mountainous areas from Colombia to Peru
The Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) spends its winters in Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America. Parulas raise young from Florida to the boreal forests of northern Canada, but according to Cornell, they skip Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and some northeastern states. Why avoid us? Mosses like the southern Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) or northern lichens like Old Man’s Beard (g. Usnea) that droop from branches are important to the Parula for nesting material and neither is common in our area. So since they breed north of us and south of us but not here, try to see them before they move on!
The Northern Parula’s rust-colored throat isn’t visible in this photo. It breeds in many states but not here since we don’t have the tree mosses or lichens they depend on for nesting material.
According to the migration map at Cornell, the Yellow-rumped Warbler just barely misses our area during the breeding season. They breed north of Michigan’s “thumb.” The reason may be that, like the Blackburnian, they prefer mature forests with more conifers in them than we have around here. Luckily, during migration, I’ve seen them many times at Bear Creek Park, either around the playground pond or in the oak-hickory forest. They can winter as far north as Indiana and Ohio (rarely in the southern edge of Michigan) because they can digest fruits that other warblers can’t, like juniper or myrtle, but also the fruits of poison ivy, poison oak and virginia creeper, for heaven’s sake! Strong stomachs, eh? This one rested at Magee Marsh this year before crossing Lake Erie.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler prefers the conifer forests of Canada as nesting territory.
During migration, I’ve spotted Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) year after year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Their song is a rapid buzzing trill, Look for Palm Warblers on the ground, a location uncommon for most warblers. They also do a lot of tail pumping while they forage. Palm Warblers prefer to nest in the boreal (evergreen) forests of Canada. Their migration north begins in Florida or the Caribbean.
Palm Warblers spend a lot of time on the ground, which is unusual for warblers.
Some Warblers Spend the Summer With Us.
All summer long, we are graced with the presence of other warblers. They are small and can be difficult to see hidden in the summer greenery, though, so it’s a delight to see them before the leaves are fully grown. I have yet to see a warbler nest, but I’ve only become aware of these little beauties since I joined the birding group, so maybe you long-time birders have spotted them raising young. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!
The Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), one of my favorite warblers, is shown on Cornell Lab’s migration map as nesting here in our area, but I’ve only seen them during migration. Please let me know if you see one during the summer or hear what Cornell describes as their “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” breeding song. These little birds spend their winters among tropical birds in Central and northern South America. They tend to go back to the same tropical area each autumn and hang out and feed with the same mixed group of tropical birds they hung out with the previous year. I’d love to see that reunion each year!
The Chestnut-sided Warbler spends the winter with the same group of tropical birds in Central or northern South America.
Happily, the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a common summer resident in our parks. These bright yellow birds are likely to be in shrubs or trees near wetlands. The male’s very quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” call can be heard at quite a distance, so keep following that call! This tiny bird is also a long distance migrator. Yellow Warblers fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Central America or northern South America. Wouldn’t their tropical ancestors be proud of them? (Click on photos to enlarge hover cursor for captions.)The male Yellow Warbler sings the “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song and has rusty stripes on his breast. The female Yellow Warbler’s breast stripes are not as distinct as the male’s.
Some of our eastern American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) only travel to Florida for the winter. But many fly on to the Greater Antilles (the large islands in the Caribbean) or to northern South America. Listen for its cheerful song since they mate in our area, as well as over a large area of the country. The Redstart is believed to startle insects out of trees by simultaneously drooping its orange-patched wings and flashing open its colorful tail. It must work, because Cornell says that they excel among the warblers at catching flying insects.The male Redstart startles insects into the air by flashing its colorfully patterned wings and tail. Female and juvenile Redstarts have a more subtle yellow “flash pattern.”
The intricately patterned Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia) hop along, around, over and under the trunks and branches of trees, much like nuthatches, looking for insects in the moss and bark. They can nest here, though I’ve only seen them during migration and don’t yet recognize their rapid, shrill trill. They build nests on the ground in forest leaf litter, so we’re more likely to see them in parks than on our tidy lawns. They are scrappy little birds that give the Redstarts and Chickadees a hard time when establishing territory. Some travel to Florida for the winter, but others fly on to northern South America where they hassle inhabitants there as well!
The Black-and-white Warbler hops about on trees and branches searching for insects or insect eggs, much as the Nuthatch and Brown Creeper do.
The birding group sees or hears Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) during migration. The maps at Cornell Lab shows that some breed here, but they’re more likely to nest farther north in forests with mature trees. There they often feed high up in the canopy. So really, the best time to see them is when they’re migrating because they tend to stay further down in the greenery. Though they do have a mating song, we’re most likely to hear their buzzing “zzzzz” territorial song while they’re traveling. The mating song is the first recording at this Cornell link and the buzzing call is the second one. They may have migrated up from the Caribbean. Or they may have traveled from Central America and northern South America, either around or over the Gulf of Mexico.
Listen for the buzzing “zzzzz” call of The Black-throated Green Warbler to locate it during migration.
Birds Flowing Over Us in the Dark Night Sky
Imagine standing on your lawn in the dark on a warm spring night. Though you can’t see them in the dark sky, a river of small birds, dressed in their best courtship colors, are alternately soaring and fluttering as they ride the south wind. Most of the smallest ones travel in large mixed flocks for safety. For hundreds of miles each night, they wing their way beneath the stars. They’re battered by unexpected cold fronts and rainstorms that force them down to the earth, sometimes in places unsuitable for rest or foraging. They rest, try to forage and fly on. They dodge predators like owls or suburban cats that patrol the night and hawks and other predators by day. They fly on. Some are confused by the bright lights of buildings or towers and break against unseen glass or metal, falling to their deaths by the millions each year. But luckily, others manage to tilt their wings, swerve away or over these obstacles and fly on. Driven by the need to find the optimum habitat for raising their young, these colorful small birds persist in the journey defined by their tropical ancestors thousands of year ago.
Now these lovely, hungry, weary travelers have arrived or at least have chosen to stop, rest and eat here before continuing on. It seems only right that we take a little time to appreciate them. Their bustling activity, brilliant color and cheerful song provide a welcome change after the quiet, cold, gray-and-brown landscape of winter. Now that I’ve come to know some of them, late spring is even more of a joy. I wish that for you, too.