The Birth of a Painted Lady Butterfly in Pictures

A Painted Lady butterfly emerges.

Butterfly births happen all the time, all over the world. They’re simple, everyday acts of nature we’re all familiar with. Yet despite the familiarity, the process of a chubby little caterpillar transforming itself in a chrysalis only to emerge as a delicate, winged butterfly continues to fascinate. And as you take a look at the birth of a butterfly in these up-close photographs, you’ll soon realize why.

The butterfly begins to break through the brittle pupa head-first.

There are four species of Painted Lady butterflies, the most well-known of which is Vanessa cardui, also known as the Painted Lady. This is one of the most widespread as well as beautiful butterflies in the world (although perhaps not quite rivaling the Swallowtail butterfly in terms of aesthetic appeal). It originates from North Africa but is now found on all continents except South America and Antarctica – although the species has a limited distribution in Australia. In the US, because it is so well traveled, it is known as the Cosmopolitan.

Like the Monarch butterflies we looked at previously here on EG, the Painted Ladies can be migratory in nature. For example, in the US the butterflies migrate from the deserts of northern Mexico as far up as Canada and just south of the Arctic.

It frees its front legs and uses them to push its way out.

Although people commonly refer to butterflies emerging from their cocoons, the correct term for their delicate casing is the chrysalis, or pupa – in which the butterfly metamorphoses. (A cocoon, on the other hand, is the hard protective layer that a moth spins to cover and protect its pupa.) Prior to the butterfly emerging, its pupa becomes quite thin and transparent.


A lone antenna pops out as the butterfly continues to emerge.

As a caterpillar, the Painted Lady sheds its skin four times before becoming a butterfly. And, each time, it looks noticeably different – which makes identifying it a bit tricky unless you know exactly what you’re looking at. In its final instar, the caterpillar body is dark brown and covered in bristles. When it’s ready to begin its transformation, it finds a good spot to which to attach itself.

Using some sticky silk to hold itself in place, the caterpillar will then hang from its chosen spot in a ‘J’ position. Then, over a period of up to 24 hours, the caterpillar sheds its outer skin to reveal its pupa. In the Painted Lady, the pupa is a pale brown or tan color with raised yellow dots. Shape, color and size of pupae vary hugely between species.


Gradually the colorful wings begin to emerge.

When we picture the process, we generally imagine the pupa hanging completely motionless until it’s time for the butterfly to emerge. However, for many species, including the Painted Lady, this is not the case. If you touch it, the pupa is likely to start wiggling and moving around quite vigorously. This is thought to be a deterrent against predators and can be quite startling.

One wing is out of the chrysalis.

The transformation inside the pupa can take anywhere between a week and 11 days, but finally the butterfly is ready to ‘eclose’, or break its way out of the pupa. When it’s first formed, the pupa is soft and flexible, but gradually it hardens until it can be split or cracked open. While it’s pushing itself out of the pupa, the butterfly uses fluid called hemolymph to pump its wings up and expand them. The butterflies will also expel a reddish-colored waste product of metamorphosis (called meconium) as they emerge from the pupa.


One last push and it’s almost completely free.

The fully emerged butterfly doesn’t immediately test out its wings and flutter off. The wings are still too wet and soft and need to dry out. In fact, it can take a whole day for the wings to harden up. And it’s important that the new butterfly allows its wings to harden properly, as moving them too soon can damage them, which wouldn’t be a good start to the life of a fragile flying insect.

Thirty seconds after the process begins, the butterfly is fully emerged.

While it’s drying its wings out, the young butterfly will test its proboscis (the long mouth part) by curling and uncurling it. Butterflies are born with their proboscises in two separate pieces. Not long after it emerges from the pupa, the butterfly begins to join those pieces together using the ‘palpi’ on either side of its head. Only when it forms a single working proboscis will the butterfly be able to use it to suck nectar from a variety of flowers. These include milkweed, ironweed, blazing stars, and thistles in particular – which has led to the Painted Lady also being referred to as the Thistle Butterfly.


Beginning to straighten out and dry those wet, soft wings

Once it has emerged, we can see the lovely colors and design that give the Painted Lady its most common name. Painted Ladies are generally orange and brown on their upper sides. And they have black patches on the tips of their forewings, which are dotted with white spots. The hindwings, on the other hand, feature rows of five black spots, while the undersides of the butterflies are a more subtle brown and grey color – with four dark spots, or eyespots, on each hindwing.

Now it’s time to admire the lovely soft colors of the butterfly’s underside.

As you can see from this close-up photograph, the Painted Lady only seems to have four legs, instead of the normal six. The truth, however, is that the missing two legs are small and pulled up against the butterfly’s thorax (the front section of its body). These hidden legs are called brush-feet, and if you do manage to spot them, they look like small furry hooks.


A closer look at the hairy-looking front section of the drying butterfly

Another interesting fact about butterflies like the Painted Lady is that they taste with their feet and smell with their antennae. The hooked ends of a butterfly’s legs actually host a group of taste receptors, which it uses to identify the right kind of plant for feeding or lay eggs on. The antennae, as you can see, have small white spots on the ends and are used for smelling and balance.

The butterfly patiently waits until its wings are ready for take-off.

After its transformation, the Painted Lady has about two weeks to live. It will spend this time eating and mating. And as we mentioned earlier, it may also migrate to warmer climes. Yes, this is one creature that likes warmth! In fact, no butterflies are able to fly in cold weather. If they do feel a bit chilly, they have to either warm up in the sun or shiver to get their muscles going again. Otherwise, not only are they unable to look for food, but they become defenseless prey for their many predators.


Preparing for flight

And so we leave our Painted Lady butterfly, freshly freed and on the verge of a new life. We hope you’ve enjoyed this up-close reminder of the magical power of Mother Nature. Talk about an ugly duckling.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12