Thursday, July 13, 2017

Repeating Natural Wonders

In ten years of our science/faith blog we have made 14 references to the unique monarch butterfly. Four entries were detailed personal family accounts of the monarch phenomenon. First, our gymnastics instructor son, unbeknown to me, challenged his young gymnastics students for an out-of-the-gym project. They were to search for and collect a few familiar monarch caterpillars on local milkweed plants, carefully feed them fresh leaves in an aerated, covered jar for a week or more, and observe the incredible phenomenon of a fully grown caterpillar suspending itself in its familiar upside-down J-form before shedding its skin to form its gold-bejeweled green chrysalis. When I asked where he got the idea for this student project, he reminded me of family projects with monarchs when he was a child. We have a picture of Brad as a kindergartner holding a jar lid and a newly emerged butterfly. We also have a letter from his third grade teacher commending him on his oral Monarch presentation for his classmates.

We continue describing the monarch saga from chrysalis to adult monarch. After a week or so, the emerald green chrysalis begins to change color, revealing the compressed orange and black monarch wings within the now clear, cellophane-thin chrysalis covering. Soon, the monarch butterfly breaks loose from its confinement and almost immediately begins to inflate its wings to its adult full measure while clinging to what is left of the chrysalis. With experience we learned to carefully transport the newly hatched monarch outdoors as it clung for dear life to the remains of its hatching nursery venue. After several hours the monarch gains strength and deems it is time to launch as an adult. In our region, depending on how far summer has advanced, the adult monarch will reproduce a new generation. After a few weeks sampling nectar, mating and producing tiny eggs placed on the bottom of milkweed plants, its life ends. The remarkable last generation of the the summer wings its way to central Mexico despite multiple travel hazards in order to overwinter in a specific few hectares of Mexican forest. They become the next season’s first generation up north of the border.

When we visited our son’s home in Iowa this year in late June, we experienced a throwback to the joys of observing this ancient natural wonder. His own children now participate in the monarch saga. One evening we observed a color-changed chrysalis attached to a leaf taped under the kitchen cabinet. The next morning it had hatched. We coaxed it onto a marigold out on the deck. After about two hours of contemplation, the butterfly deemed it was ready to fly away on its adult mission but not before we asked three preschoolers to pose for a photograph as inspectors. After a long wait, only Grandpa was present at the precise moment of the initial launch event—a first for him! 

As our family became older some of the children became expert at finding the tiny, lemon-shaped monarch eggs, exceeding even their father’s and their grandfather’s skill in studying the initial stage of metamorphosis. One of the most fascinating observations followed as we watched tiny new caterpillars break out of the pinhead sized egg and multiply their body weight by a factor of a thousand in ensuing days. Consider the information stored in the tiny egg—all the stages of design, growth, and behavior, including finding its way to a tiny forest site in Mexico for the last generation of the summer.

Since our early blog posts on the wondrous monarch, their numbers have been in serious decline for several reasons. After the turn of the millennium, the species experienced a severe winter freeze in Mexico, other storms in their limited wintering area, and constant threats from loggers intent on harvesting the trees in their winter roosting area. In their summertime abode the lifeline milkweed crop is threatened by agricultural herbicides and other hazards. Groups such as Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) are committed to improving monarch habitat including restoring milkweed plants in their former range.

All butterflies, moths, and many other insects experience unique wonders in their metamorphosis process sequences. Individual patterns of unique behavior are plentiful in thousands of different species-specific specimens. Of multiple behaviors during metamorphosis, we mention only one other. Swallowtail butterflies weave themselves a silken support harness in which to insert themselves for their motionless chrysalis stage. Unique programming of each of hundreds of steps in four stage metamorphosis is a source of wonder at the manifestations of behavior arising from simple combinations of living chemicals. Although such behavior does not rise to the marvel of human consciousness, animal behavior gives rich cause to contemplate their version of consciousness.

In Psalm 104:24 (NLT) the author proclaims his worshipful exuberance: “O LORD, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures.” Intuitively we recognize the reality of God’s creative activity, not only with respect to the physical designs of living creatures, but also with respect to their inherent behaviors. When working with young people admiring the awe-inspiring behavior of living creatures, I have expressed this thought on many occasions: God had many great ideas!