Papilio polytes – Onkel Dittmeyer

Written by Christine

Papilio polytes before and after his transformation

One morning, sipping my coffee, my eye fell on something sitting on my homegrown little orange tree. It looked like bird dropping so I went to check it out. Why would anyone want to have a closer look at poop, you might ask? Let me explain. First, we are living 100+m above the ground and are seldom visited by birds, apart from the swallows and eagles passing by, but never resting. Secondly, being a hobby entomologist, I know about the abilities of some species to disguise themselves as excreta. Strangely enough, our balcony is home to many jumping spiders and ants, even bees come and check us out from time to time. I was very happy to see that the little scat really turned out to be a caterpillar. Soon you could see him munching the zesty leaves at an amazing speed. Eric Carle wasn’t exaggerating, well, maybe just a little! I spent some time thinking about this fella, how he ended up on our orange plant and why he is there all alone, while one leaf after another disappeared. Not being able to solve this riddle I continued observing him. We called him Onkel Dittmeyer after the famous orange juice entrepreneur. Although the sex is already decided in the egg, you can’t tell it in the larval stage, since their only job is to eat and grow. And he grew fast, soon we witnessed him molting, not looking like poop anymore and triple the size. Now we were pretty certain, that must be the larva of Papilio polytes, the common Mormon, with a slight possibility of lime caterpillar.

Side note about the English common name: When they started to first observe butterflies from the species of swallowtails, which are quite common in Asia, they noticed that one male had 3 females at a time. Who else is known for polygamy? Mormons..there you go. So, I rather stick with the scientific name, Latin for butterfly: Papilio and Greek for many: poly, Papilio polytes.

Unfortunate for our orange tree, which is only 40cm in height, his appetite was unstoppable, to save the plant I decided to relocate him to our, also homegrown but much bigger lemon tree. It was really a joy watching him eat! But not for long as it was time for his metamorphosis. All he had to do from now on was to sit still. For this, he chose the undersite of a leaf, shaded by other leaves. Quickly his outer body hardened into a pupa or chrysalis, looking a bit like a green version of batman. This transition stage can take up several days, weeks, or even years, if you think about the famous cicada. For Onkel Dittmeyer, who really turned out to be male, it took exactly 10 days. Now, most hearts will jump with joy as we humans like to personify natural phenomena and use this metamorphosis as a metaphor for the hope of our own transformation into something beautiful. And while he did what he is supposed to do, I did what I am supposed to do, getting all philosophical. Let’s think about it, during evolution it turned out to be beneficial for this type of butterfly larva to look like shit in order not to get eaten until you outgrow this stage and then, poof, butterfly. Mission accomplished. But what does it take for a larva to transform into the adult stage? Being completely immobile and vulnerable for this period, the inside of the pupa first needs to dissolve a big deal of itself, literally digest himself to gain energy for the transformation. Cells, which were set on hold during the larva stage start to run their programme, growing rapidly and turning into legs, wings, antennas. Before the butterfly forms itself there is nothing but a caterpillar liquid inside the chrysalis. That is really quite a transformation and for me one of the greatest wonders in nature, not only for butterflies but all species undergoing a complete metamorphosis. And for what, to mate and start the circle again, for the species to continue to exist.

We noticed a colour change of the pupa the night before and knew, that he will soon hatch. Also, thanks to lots of data we knew it would happen in the early morning and really, with the sunrise the chrysalis broke open and out he came. It took him just one hour to pump up and harden the wings and to disappear.

From caterpillar to pupae to butterfly

Coming back to our human transformation, now seeing it through the eye of a butterfly. Hands up who wants to undergo metaphorical digestion of all what we believed to be, dissolve it and turn it into something new, not for ourselves but for the greater good?

2 Replies to “Papilio polytes – Onkel Dittmeyer”

  1. Inge Hülsken says:

    Wunderbarer,interessanter Artikel,

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