220. The Lepidopterist


The Lepidopterist

What else could he have done? With all the traffic on the street, Duncan wasn’t even going the speed limit of 25. He saw the basketball enter the street from the sidewalk, out from an alleyway, and before he could make the connection between ball and boy, the child single-mindedly appeared in the street after the ball. He didn’t even have time to turn and see the jeep before it muscled over him. There was only the slightest squeal of tires but it was too late even before Duncan’s foot bore down on the brake pedal.

Screams and yelling, hand waving and finger pointing followed. There were stares – gazes, angry and disbelieving, shocked and scared. All this energy trained on him, his jeep, and the child, unconscious, trembling in acute shock. Enter the sitter – hysterical.

Duncan was a lepidopterist – a scientist who specializes in the study of butterflies, moths and similar insects. He was on his way to a lecture and presentation at a private elementary school. In the back of his jeep was a box containing a dozen monarch butterflies – Danaus plexippus.

These butterflies lay their eggs on the milkweed plant. The caterpillars that emerge feed on leaves and shoots from which their bodies glean and store bitter chemicals known as cardenolides from its sap. A bird will only attempt to eat a monarch caterpillar or butterfly once because even if it can get past the bitter, pungent taste, the endless vomiting that follows will drive home the point that this insect, defenseless as it appears, is not to be reckoned with.

Image by: Aftab Uzzaman

As the din of the crowd grew, Duncan sat behind the wheel, stunned. What’s the protocol in a case like this? As a man of science, he knew that there were ways that things were done – procedures that both maintained order and ensured repeatable, verifiable experimental results, without which science could not go forward. This kind of deterministic certainty crept into every area of his life and while it made for a quiet, peaceful life, it also induced a kind of paralysis in unfamiliar situations, and certainly, this was one of them.

Questions swarmed his mind. “Should I back up? What if the child is behind the front wheels? Should I get out? What will this do to my insurance? Am I at fault? What about the lecture at the school? Who are all these people? What will I say? Why now? Why me? Why do things always go so wrong? Oh my God, did I just kill a child?”

The questions continue to rattle through his mind and he lets them bounce off of one another. As if by instinct alone, he leaves the engine running, opens the door, gets out of the jeep, and braces himself before bending down to see what he’s done. There are already bystanders looking underneath the chassis. They are calling out to the kid and he takes this to be a good sign until he sees the pool of blood darkening the asphalt.

Image by: Steve Corey

One of the wonders of the monarch butterfly is its migration pattern. In the fall, these tiny insects make their way from Canada and the northern most of the United States down to the slopes of Sierra Madre Del Sur in southern Mexico – a journey of over three thousand miles. What makes this trip even more remarkable is the fact that the butterflies who migrate north are not the same ones that migrated south the year before. In fact, the entire round trip can encompass up to seven generations, most of whom mate and die along the north-bound leg of the journey. As the end of summer approaches, a special generation of butterfly is born – one whose life-span is up to eight times longer than that of their grandparents. This is the generation that makes the long haul down south, fleeing the bitter winter cold.

Of course the big riddle is how this last generation knows the way back to the homeland of their great-great-great-great-grandparents – a place they’ve never seen before. Duncan likes to believe that butterflies pass the secrets of this journey on to their offspring through song. He imagines the butterflies singing to one another about an odyssey of epic proportions as they fly ever northward. And he pictures the southbound flyers marveling at the way the song that they’ve had ingrained into them through repetition guides them on their way back to the mountains of Mexico.

Peering under the vehicle, Duncan can see that the boy is still alive but in very bad shape. He has no medical training but he can see signs of trauma everywhere along the boy’s misshapen body. Another man runs up to the scene and introduces himself as a doctor – an oncologist, but a doctor nevertheless. He accesses the scene and enlists the help of others, gently pulling the boy out from under the chassis.

At this point, Duncan sees that there’s nothing left to do but let the life of this accident play itself out. It’s all out of his hands. He gets back into the jeep, shuts off the engine, and watches the drama unfold in front of him through the window. Fire trucks, ambulance, police, first responders. Questions, reports, no accusations, thankfully, but the guilt descends upon him anyway.

His cell phone rings. It’s the school asking him where he is.

Image by: Steve Corey

If the details of butterfly migration are a mystery, the metamorphosis from larval form (caterpillar) into pupa and finally into butterfly is nothing short of a miracle. Once encased in its chrysalis, a radical, comprehensive transformation takes place. It begins with a process called histolysis which breaks down much of the caterpillar’s tissue into a kind of gelatinous soup. Not everything is destroyed. Spared are the internal organs as well as a special set of cells called histoblasts. These cells are instrumental in building new body parts – legs, compound eyes, antenna, and proboscis, to name just a few – through a process called histogenesis. The wings actually begin developing from the first larval stages, with much of the wings’ formation occuring within the caterpillar’s body. During metamorphosis, they grow exponentially and adhere themselves to the outer cuticle.

Once this transformation is complete, the (now) butterfly breaks through the chrysalis and emerges wet with crumpled wings. It clings to the empty shell and pumps hemolymph (insect blood) through its body, basically inflating its wings. After about an hour (depending on surrounding temperature and humidity), the wings harden into a rigid structure that enables flight. The horny butterfly takes to the air, eager to feast, to migrate, and to mate.

Two weeks later, Duncan pays a visit to the boy’s house bearing one small gift. His bruises are starting to fade and broken bones are mending behind plaster casts. There are no hard feelings between any of the parties involved. Duncan sets a small cage on the boy’s bureau. He points out the tiny green chrysalis attached to a twig and tells him that if he listens quietly and closely enough, he just might hear traces of the song of migration – a tune three thousand miles long.

Image by: Linda Tanner

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