Sunday, April 06, 2014

Butterflies and Elder Gods

So I was listening to Radio Lab recently, and Jad and Robert were learning about butterflies. Specifically, what happens between the moment a caterpillar builds a chrysalid around itself, and the moment it emerges as a butterfly?

The answer was terrifying.*

Apparently a caterpillar does not build a chrysalid at all--it is the chrysalid. It grows the chrysalid beneath its own skin, and then sheds that skin when the time is ripe.

Inside the chrysalid is a folded-up butterfly, getting bigger and stronger, like a flower in a bud, right?


It is a bunch of goo, a glob of jelly, with tiny pre-organs floating around in it.

I'm not sure why I had this reaction, but as soon as I heard that, I got chills. And they kept coming as I listened to the description.

Something about the way this animal grows is so alien to me--the fact that it can be a caterpillar, then a bunch of goo, then a long stick-like animal with wings. I've always loved butterflies, but now I feel a bit afraid of them. They're a bit Lovecraftian now: an alien, insectile, inscrutable being that can seduce and frighten at the same time.

Chine Mieville gets it. His Slake Moths are among the most terrifying fantasy villains I have ever encountered in literature--and all evolved from lovely, harmless, bumbling caterpillars, transformed into gorgeous, shifting, air-borne creatures.

This guy also gets it (terrifying):

*The Radio Lab segment, called "Goo and You," was excellent. The scientists (lepidopterists FTW) answered the question that occurred to me--how do we actually know that the butterfly and the caterpillar are the same organism, and not just a dead caterpillar goo that grew a butterfly? They established that the goo is the animal, and can actually carry memories from the caterpillar phase to the butterfly phase.

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