Thursday, April 22, 2010

Metamorphosis and the Great Chrysalis/Cocoon Debate

Late this fall, some of my students found a cocoon on our playground. After some research, we discovered that some species "overwinter", which means they are in the cocoon state for an extended period of time. We are waiting and watching to see if anything will come out.

About 2 weeks ago, the friends found another cocoon, so we added that to our butterfly pavilion as well. As I was trying to take a picture, I took the cocoon out to get a better shot. It was rocking a little on the paper I used as a background. I figured it was probably due to the uneven stem, but as I held it in my hand, I could feel lots of movement in the cocoon. I have to say it really freaked me out for just a minute!

We have really enjoyed observing our cocoons. This has been a great experience and we have really increased our vocabulary. One of our favorite activities is to clap syllables of the words we say. Usually, most of our words only warrant one or two claps, but we had lots of fun clapping the syllables of words like: met-a-morph-o-sis, co-coon, chrys-a-lis, an-ten-nae, ab-do-men, and thor-ax! Check out the post Going Bug-gy! for some of the other fun things we did while learning about bugs.

When we studied the life cycles last week, I learned about a hot little debate going on ~ cocoon, chrysalis or pupa? We read several books about metamorphosis and noticed that there were three ways the pupa stage is referred to. It got a little confusing, so I decided I needed to do some research.

We learned that in the pupa stage, the butterfly caterpillar spins a hard outer covering called a chrysalis. Moth caterpillars form a softer cloth-like covering called a cocoon. The chrysalis and the cocoon are both coverings for a pupa. This was a little confusing, but since we realized we had a cocoon, we didn't really worry about the semantics.

Okay, so why does Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar refer to a cocoon? He explains:
 Here’s the scientific explanation: In most cases a butterfly
does come from a chrysalis, but not all. There’s a rare
genus called Parnassian, that pupates in a cocoon.
These butterflies live in the Pacific Northwest, in Siberia,
and as far away as North Korea and the northern islands
of Japan.
And here’s my unscientific explanation: My caterpillar is
very unusual. As you know caterpillars don’t eat lollipops
and ice cream, so you won’t find my caterpillar in any
field guides. But also, when I was a small boy, my father
would say, “Eric, come out of your cocoon.” He meant I
should open up and be receptive to the world around
me. For me, it would not sound right to say, “Come out
of your chrysalis.” And so poetry won over science!
~ The Caterpillar Express~An Occasional Newsletter from Eric Carle, vol. 1

Very Hungry Caterpillar
I came to school this morning and as I began to settle into my early morning routine, something caught my eye. There was movement in the butterfly pavilion. I walked over and this is what I saw:

This was a magnificent creature. He was bigger than my hand!  He had large fuzzy antennae and beautiful spots on his wings. His body was very large and hairy, almost like a giant brown bumblebee. We set him free this afternoon. This evening, I've  had the chance to do a little research. I believe this was a Polyphemus Moth. I guess I didn't realize that moths could really be beautiful and not just those annoying little brown things that cluster around the porch light. (I mean, I read Silence of the Lambs, but until I saw this thing, I just didn't get it.) Some moths are just as breathtaking as the most brilliant butterfly! Here is a clear picture of another Polyphemus Moth I found on the internet, so you can see the colors a little better:

What started as a teachable moment from finding a cocoon on the playground has been an amazing learning experience for both the kids and myself. I hope I have the opportunity next year for such an experience. For that to happen, I'll need to replace our sad, dilapidated butterfly habitat~ our butterfly pavilion has had it. I inherited it with my classroom, and it has clearly seen better days. It is held together with clear packing tape, a wish and a prayer.  I really need to get a new one. I'll probably go with the smaller version of the one I have now.

.....But, I have found the MOTHER of all Butterfly habitats! How awesome is this? A butterfly tent that the kids can crawl into and interact with the butterflies! I think they are made by Insect Lore, but they didn't have a picture or purchase info. seems to have them at a pretty good price. How cool would it be to sit in the tent with butterflies all around? hmmm.....

I know, it's a little extravagant, but my old one really has had it. : )


  1. How cool!

    I don't bother with butterflies because we're located right across the street from the zoo, where they have a massive walk through butterfly house. All the kids have annual passes and go on a weekly basis, so butterflies don't impress them that much. Worms, however . . . =)

  2. That is an awesome butterfly habitat! And now I have learned more about butterflies and cocoons from you than I have ever known:)


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