Danaus Perplexus

Oops.

Sometimes, excitement over a particular project gets the better of me.  You know how it is: a thing happens and you assume about that thing, to realize later that oops, your assumption was, well, a bit off-base.

So it is with my Monarch musings of recent posts.  Specifically, the adventures of snipping some milkweed with attached caterpillars prior to a predicted freeze and settling them into my son’s vacated room for their metamorphosing process.  Turns out, most of the caterpillars are Queen butterflies, Danaus gilippus, and not Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus.

It’s an easy mistake to make as they are both members of the same butterfly sub-family, Danainae.  They look similar, in both larval and adult stage, feed on the same host plant (milkweed) and share similar life-cycle events.  Interestingly, I’ve never had problems telling the two species apart in the adult butterfly stage, though many people do.  The adult Monarch is about a third larger, flies higher and with a different flight pattern, and sports “stripes,”

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…rather than “dots.”

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But I haven’t had all that much experience in viewing the larval stage.  That’s the thing about insects–they do their insect thing(s) and we humans don’t pay much attention unless those insect things are really obvious–you know, like flying around and landing on flowers.  It’s hard for us to miss that.

In my defense, I assumed that the ‘pillars were Monarchs because I’d seen a Monarch female lay eggs on the milkweed.  Additionally, I haven’t had as many Queens visit my gardens year, though they’re usually very common.  In retrospect, I remember observing a Queen at about the same time the Monarchs were migrating through, but don’t recall any egg-laying behaviors.

Not in my favor is the fact that I usually check and double-check my identifications because I’m not particularly confident in my wildlife critter knowledge.  When I observe a wild creature in my gardens, I usually check local sources first, like Austin Bug Collection, and then double-check the identification with a more comprehensive site like the excellent BugGuide.net, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or Butterflies and Moths of North America.  Often I research further, comparing my photos and observations with varying sites–to avoid obvious mistakes.

In this case, I recognized that the one caterpillar that is a Monarch was different–I just didn’t follow-up on my visual observations.  I noticed he was larger, with slightly different color patterns, and that he only had two tentacle pairs–a pair of antennae near the head and a tentacle pair further down the abdomen.  The “other” cats had three sets: one set of antennae and two sets of tentacles.  You can clearly see the difference in this photo.

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I just didn’t pay close enough attention, nor did I intellectually process my observations. This kind of critter identification faux pas is one motivation behind hosting the Wildlife Wednesday garden blogging meme–to better my own citizen scientist abilities.

Well, this Monarch nannying was a big FAIL with that goal.  Bummer.  I’m not a scientist. 

In some ways, I’m glad that what I am nannying are Queens. Granted, Queens aren’t  as cool and sexy and important as the beleaguered Monarchs.  But, whatever hatches has a greater chance of normal survival–Queens can live year-round in South Texas and Austin is at the northern range of that year-round habitat.   If the caterpillars were Monarchs, the chances of a successful very late migration and overwinter survival in Mexico would be slim. Not impossible, but unlikely.  That these are Queens means that at the very least, they’ll hang around, nectar, and live out their life.

All that said, Mr. Nine Lives, aka Monarch larva, is not going to make it.  He’s currently curled up on the windowsill.  No photo here–let’s preserve some dignity. I don’t know why he’s dying.  It might be that I wasn’t careful when I handled him, that I didn’t wash my hands and transferred germs which caused illness, or that his thunk on the wooden floor and/or his dip in the water where the milkweed cuttings reside, did him in. I think the other chrysalides are progressing normally though.  I’ll report again on…whatever happens.

Despite my identification mistake and my limitations as a scientist (which are profound), I value and marvel at the beauty and miracle of the metamorphosis process. I’m grateful to witness this natural phenomenon.

Thanks to Michelle at Rambling Woods for setting me straight and teaching me something new!

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12 thoughts on “Danaus Perplexus

  1. First off: you are not a poor scientist at all. Science is all about making mistakes and clarifying the truth. This reminds me of something that happened to me once. I coached a bunch of kids through science fair projects. One of the partnerships struggled because their hypothesis was not confirmed by their experimentation and I got really exicited and told them that is exactly what happens to most scientists most of the time. I knew that this project had the potential to be a winning entry. So we used those failures and built on them. The girls kept expressing their doubts. They were convinced that because they were wrong their project was a failure. Science Fair time came and I happened to be present during the judging. One of the judges was a ‘real’ scientist. (Like, that is how he earned his living). He took one look at that project and wanted to give it first prize but he was OVER RULED by the teacher hosting the event. She objected because the hypothesis was incorrect. He patiently explained to her everything I just said: most science is wrong most of the time. Science isn’t about having correct conclusions; it is a process of discovery. What happened? A couple of boys who took a standard science question that everyone already knows the answer to won instead. But I did ask the ‘real’ scientist to talk to my girls to explain how in his job he and every other scientist fails consistently. If you already know the answer it isn’t science. If you learn something new then it is science.

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    • Ah, science fair projects. I remember them well. I agree that science is about the process of discovery and making mistakes toward that goal. But, geez–I could have looked at some photos! 🙂 I do appreciate your support and it’s been a great learning and lesson for me and I hope, others.

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      • It has been a great learning experience for me. Now I know a whole lot more about distinguishing the caterpillars. I probably would never have known what to look for otherwise. Your experience also demonstrated another thing about doing science. You shared your results with a colleague who shared what she knew. Then you relayed your results to others. That is what I hate so much about competitive science fairs. In the real world people cooperate and collaborate.

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      • That’s true for me, as well. You’re correct–good science, good almost anything, is better and more thorough when done collaboratively.

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  2. We never stop learning if we are among the fortunate who continue to observe, record and comprehend the world around us. We are indeed fortunate when our mistakes are noted and explained..I never knew there was a Palamedes Swallowtail until I mis-identified it on a blog. Once I heard the name, I could compare it to my butterfly.

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    • Amen to that! I find that the mistakes I make are when, instead of being open to new experiences and ideas, I’m closed to them. I’m glad that circumstances forced a learning process in this case.

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  3. This is just part of what is so engaging about comparing notes via our blogs on plants and wildlife. There is so much to learn (even for folks with lots of experience already), such a vast store of knowledge to be shared, and so often very kind folk, who are the ones to share it. I appreciate you owning your error this way. It is liberating to be in your company, I don’t feel the need to already know everything or to never make a mistake. I like that. A lot.

    And I agree – if you have a passel of Queen butterflies, that is yet a very good thing. As you point out, they will more likely thrive and multiply and survive to be a wonderful feature of your outdoor spaces for seasons yet to come. Am I any less envious of your caterpillar hostess status because they are queens rather than monarchs? Not one whit!

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    • There is a lot to learn! Gardening and related subjects are life-long pursuits, so the learning and challenges should never end. Reading blogs and writing a blog are both good tools to use in sifting through to the vast amount of information related to the act of gardening.

      I’m happy nannying the Queens and I do hope they emerge, healthy and ready to be butterflies. I thought I’d be hosting an adult by now. Alas, not yet!

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  4. Your enthusiasm was and is so nice. That is why I hated to say anything and while I thought something was wrong with the dark cat, I did not know what a queen cat looked like at all till it was pointed out to me. My late friend was a wildlife rehabber and after unsuccessfully getting 2 goldfinch babies to rehab before they died, told me that things are going to die. Despite our best efforts, things get sick and die. When that happens be happy that you tried and learned something. When you can, pass that knowledge on. That makes you a naturalist. I try to remember her words when a snapper takes a gosling or a hawk takes a dove… So you are now the student and with this post the teacher….. Michelle

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    • I appreciate your jumping in and setting me straight! learned several things: to not assume–always a bad idea, I think. And, to always, always, double-check with photos and research. It’s easy with the myriad of excellent natural science Internet sites now and there’s no reason not to utilize that information.

      I don’t grieve the death of the caterpillar or like situations. I’m sorry the monarch larva didn’t make it, but such is life and nature. I’m keenly aware that there are so many variables, that survival is indeed, of the fittest.

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  5. Oh gosh, I didn’t notice either. I guess I wasn’t looking very closely at your photos–just fascinated that you had a bunch of cats! Wow, what Michelle said is so true. Do, still keep us posted on your naturalist and caretaking endeavors. And have a very Happy Thanksgiving!

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    • I will keep you posted–so far, no one as emerged and I’m growing a bit concerned about that, but, as with so many things, there’s not much I can do. This little project has taught me to always check my information–and to compare photos! Happy Thanksgiving to you as well!!

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