Gulf Fritillaries © Lila Cox


Butterflies go through an amazing transformation known as complete metamorphosis. We typically encounter two of the four life stages – the caterpillar and the butterfly. It is hard to believe that one animal can take on two such different appearances. The other two stages as egg and pupae (also known as chrysalis) are more elusive and harder to see.


Other insects, such as beetles, flies, ants and bees also undergo complete metamorphoses. While not all insects experience four distinct life phases – the only animals that do are insects. More than 75 percent of known insect species undergo complete metamorphosis. Given that they are the largest group in the animal kingdom, this unique transformation represents well over half of all animals.

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Monarch After Emerging © Lila Cox

Butterflies are short lived creatures that start out life as an egg that hatches into the larval form of a caterpillar and eats most of the time. Like other arthropods, the caterpillar has an exoskeleton that must be shed as it grows. When it gets to looking like an overstuffed sausage, it wiggles out in a new moist loose skin. Like its cousin, the crustacean, this is a very vulnerable time for the caterpillar as the exoskeleton hardens. Once mature, a caterpillar typically leaves its host plant and looks for a place to hang by its silk thread and form a chrysalis. Some chrysalises blend into the surroundings, others are quite decorative. During this stage the insect transforms from a crawling form with chewing mouthparts for eating plants to a flying insect with a probiscus (tongue) for sipping nectar.

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Gulf Fritillary © Harry Purcell

Two species depicted here have native nectar sources on Pensacola Beach and host plants in the area. The Gulf Fritillary butterfly is an active pollinator and can be seen in great numbers in October when they migrate back to warmer climes.


Monarch migration is one of the marvels of science. Adult Monarchs have a lifespan of 2 to 6 weeks, but the last generation can live up to 9 months. This generation sets out on a journey that could have a single individual traverse Canada and the U.S. to reach a particular mountain range in Central Mexico. Incredibly, a creature that weighs on average half a gram (half the weight of a dollar bill) can fly over 2,000 miles to overwinter before sending another generation north in the Spring.

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Migrating Monarchs © Lisa Murphy

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