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On a quiet, warm summer day, somewhere in the soil beneath your feet, tucked into a nearby plant, or at the edges of a pond, a tiny little cataclysm is happening: an insect is transforming, undergoing metamorphosis. The chrysalis is easily nature’s best known black box, but it turns out, it’s one of the least understood, and most complicated: when producer Molly Webster peers inside a pupa, she witnesses some of the most complex biology happening on earth...and catches sight of an ancient question of change.

Special thanks to Lynn Riddiford, over at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and to Father James Martin, S.J., editor at large for America magazine.


Phillip Clayton, Matthew Cobb, Andrei Sourakov, Molly Webster and Martha Weiss

Comments [34]

Kelly Smith from Omaha, NE

Why does it have to be a tiny brain that recalls the experience? What about cell intelligence? What if every cell has an intelligence with the ability to recall feelings or experiences?

Sep. 06 2017 02:04 PM
pmm from PA

Was the woman really equating living cells transforming into another form with us when we die, when all our cells are dead, and her idea of an afterlife?
Dead is dead.

Sep. 03 2017 05:10 PM
Ken from Belgium

Scott Erickson: I think they are referring to Jan Swammerdam.

Jan. 23 2017 03:05 PM
scott erickson from Portland, OR

can anyone help me find the correct spelling of the Dutch biologist that did the dissection of the caterpillar with his colleagues?
Jean Schwarmadon?

and is there any recording or article that i can find concerning this happening?

Oct. 28 2014 07:19 PM

ML, the MySpace version of the song by Rubber Universe is free of vocals if you're still after it.

While I'm at it, does anyone have any idea where the various piano + operatic samples are from? I'm wondering if these are part of a fully mixed track or not. We hear the first sample at 1:59, and then later again at 5:24, as jojo mentions.

It sounds like a beautiful peace... not sure what language. Any leads?

Sep. 07 2014 09:31 PM
Kyle from Idaho

Metamorphosis by Phillip glass. Very fitting.

Aug. 19 2014 02:13 PM

Okay, I like ambient music. I really do. But you used it to mask a large portion of this story that could have been used for discussion. The reporter asked what future self could be inside her now. That applies to butterlfies, but does it apply to humans? If so, how do we know? If not, how do we know? To what other animals does that apply? You guys don't go into any of that. You just play the ambient music. Wasted opportunity.

Aug. 01 2014 09:46 AM

what is the pianophrase from at 5:25? its killing me

Jul. 28 2014 06:24 AM
zissou from Las Vegas

I've listened to this 3 times now and am have a couple things that still need clarification. First, what is the deal with the super thin adult butterfly skeletons? At first listen, I assumed that the future skeleton was always inside the caterpillar, but when I listened again, it never addressed what happens to the skeleton during metamorphosis. It didn't clarify what happens to that skeletal blueprint. Does it also get dissolved with the rest of the caterpillar? Or is it like a empty balloon and doesnt get dissolved and gets "inflated" by the goo? Isn't it plausible to say that the rolled up adult skeleton could be the inside lining of the chrysalis an it then unfurls and the goo then becomes the nourishment for said balloon/ skeleton blueprint? Finally, the whole memory transcendence experiment is a bit weak- what creature would willingly go toward a noxious gas? To purport that as evidence of a memory is a little weak. I do love the show for sparking my interest though! Does anyone have any insight?

Jul. 09 2014 07:08 AM
CB from San Francisco

Where can I find a transcript of this story?

Jun. 29 2014 11:35 PM
ML from Seattle

Which itself a remix of a Zoe Keating song called "We Insist" from One Cello x 16: Natoma. Neither of these versions seem to be the one in the story though.S

Jun. 24 2014 12:40 AM
ML from Seattle

Found the track at the end - it's "We Insist (Place de Greve Mix)" by Rubber Universe. But the one on iTunes seems to have some vocals in it that the Radiolab episode doesn't...

Jun. 24 2014 12:34 AM
Mark from Columbus, Ohio

Great show. There are some great FMRI shots of the chrysalis throughout pupation. It shows the genesis of the different structures inside - very, extremely cool.

Here is a video of the shedding - the butterfly emerging follows.

Jun. 05 2014 09:29 AM
Wendy Lewis from Cannon Falls, MN

This piece was mind blowing. I can't stop thinking about it and it keeps unfolding.

Jun. 02 2014 02:46 PM
Valerie from Alaska

Thank you for this show! This is the first time I have heard your program and I was hooked. Made my drive much easier and really enjoyable. I actually sat in my car after I got to my location just to find out how the story would end. I am hooked. Thanks!

Jun. 01 2014 04:24 AM
marie riley from hawai'i

I am surprised that no one on the program describing the "black box" of butterfly chrysalis ever watched the process of chrysalis formation. It is not the case that the antennae, furry skin, and limbs are dissolved in the goopy substance that the dissector uncovered (as stated by your interviewer). In fact, as you watch a caterpillar transform, you will see that it emits a green cover that pushes off the outer skin, antennae, and limbs of the caterpillar. This rolled up layer can be found at the foot of the chrysalis, sometimes even caught on the web by which the chrysalis hangs. The amorphous substance inside the chrysalis is the raw material for butterfly. Amazing in itself.

May. 31 2014 08:13 PM

I must be a glass half empty kind of person, but I didn't find it inspiring that the memories of the caterpillar survived through its gooey transformation. I found it sad that what was proven to survive was its deeply conditioned fears. Is there no escaping ones damn fears? Evidently not. It appears nature so prioritizes the survival advantage of accumulated knowledge of environmental threats that they even pass through the goo. Show me evidence that the thing remembers those tasty leaves he used to eat or that plump little centipede down the twig that seemed like she had one hundred hands and maybe then I'll feel more uplifted.
I suppose I should take some solace in the fact that the butterfly can at least take flight despite these preserved burdens. (I wasn't feeling that last line I just threw it in there as a coda for the glass half full folks.)

Mar. 28 2014 09:43 PM

This amazed me and blew my mind! Per usual, thank you for sharing and keep up the good work!

Mar. 26 2014 09:47 PM

I run a small business that does after school art programs with kids, and recently heard the Black Box episode while working on a "Chrysalis" project. I shared the goo info with a bunch of the students, and while at first I got some blank stares, I think it really inspired a bunch of them, who came up with goo-related stories about their imaginary chrysalis transformations! More about that here:

Thanks, and keep em coming!

Mar. 17 2014 11:48 AM
Tatiana from PA

Loved the episode, though I'm late to listening. The chrysalis portion made me think of the somewhat recent study revealing that mice are capable of passing down fearful memories. I'm sure you've read about it.

See here for the Scientific American write up:

Mar. 13 2014 03:01 PM

the music is Clouds from Ron Marvin on Fractal Trance

Mar. 02 2014 04:33 PM
Will from Brighton, UK

But what *IS* the music at the end of this? Aw man. Need to know.

Feb. 25 2014 04:10 AM
Nacho from Mendoza, Argentina

Great music at the end of the episode. Credits?

Feb. 12 2014 09:24 AM
Xin from Lincoln, Nebraska

Oh, come on! Not a single picture of what’s inside? I’m very disappointed.

Feb. 07 2014 05:25 PM
Patricia from Lansing, MI

Beyond the benefits and great importance of science and the continual quest, lies faith. For those who choose to put their faith in Christ, the words at the end of the first chapter of the book of Colossians, sum it up well and complement the transformation metaphor of what lies within:

"... the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."

Here's some footage of the monarch butterflies I have raised in my home.

Jan. 30 2014 09:54 AM
Marcia from Athens, GA

What a beautiful and thought-provoking story. Thank you!

Spacepotato - I love the Doctor Who reference, but I'd hate to think of our beloved doctor melting into a puddle of goo! Maybe one day he'll emerge as the ginger butterfly he's always wanted to be. ;)

Jan. 30 2014 02:49 AM
Garrek from Osaka, Japan

I agree with others that this was the best segment of the episode. I was so engaged and I loved the way the story was told and the way my mind was blown. But then I got really frustrated when I thought "Why didn't my teachers in school tell me about this?" I mean, this is a perfect opportunity to present to students the mystery of the chrysalis and ask them what they think happens, explore different possibilities and in the end reveal the answer or let students find the answer. It would be a great way to teach science instead of making students memorize the three stages of a butterfly transformation and be done with it!

Seriously, great work RadioLab. Great presentation of solid, fascinating science!!

Jan. 24 2014 02:00 AM
Molly from Seattle

This was definitely my favorite segment of the episode. I wish more time was spent on this topic, and that less time was spent on the second segment. It definitely inspired me to read and think more about the chrysalis.

Jan. 23 2014 01:16 AM

This is how I will now think that the Doctor (Doctor Who) regenerates and still keeps his memories. He just became goo during the big flash of light.

Jan. 22 2014 05:20 AM
Paul from Lansing, MI

The butterfly is just a metaphor for resurrection. It doesn't actually prove anything about what happens to people. But you knew that, right?

Jan. 21 2014 09:55 AM
Michael from Stone Mountain, GA

I listened to this segment twice--the other two were quite good enough to keep me listening and engaged, but I really loved (a) learning something totally new, i.e., the goo; (b) then that was contradicted by the experiment revealing that it isn't just goo!; and then (c) the notions about transformation got on the table: what of my future self is in the specks of my goo of my current self?! Great question; I do work towards a life goal and am far enough along to recognize some of the specks!; and (d) what a brilliant stroke to sum it all up with that wonderful, ethereal music!
There should have been an explicit credit for the music! Talk about a black box!
Thanks everyone!

Jan. 20 2014 10:54 PM
S. Smith from Wadhams, NY

I love Radiolab and this was one of my all-time favorite episodes.

For Science, the problem of where does a memory reside is going to be hopelessly frustrating as long as science insists that it must be a biological (only) function. Memory does have a biological component in that an organism is the progenitor of an experience, but it is also a receptor of information as well. Just as in the first story it was noted that consciousness is a function of signals being able to cross-reference with one another and it is the connectivity that creates the "field" (if you will) that supports awareness/consciousness, memory, I believe is also a field of connectivity that is influenced by and acts upon/in our bodies, but also exists outside the body in some non-local, non-physical phase process. These fields of information , since they are non-local and non-linear can explain a great deal once we accept that they may exist. This way, the bio-electrical field that is a Monarch caterpillar, for example, must have some way of tapping the information that allows the organizing principals to not only take the body of the caterpillar thru the morphogenisis process and re-organize the molecules into a butterfly (which is miraculous indeed ) but the fourth generation is also able to complete the migrational route, something which that individual caterpillar has never experienced. The information must therefore be stored not only in the biologic body but somewhere else that the body can access. As long as science insists however that memory is ONLY a biological process we are not going to be able to understand how memory actually works.
And in this way, the mystery of memory is much like the middle story in the podcast.... memory is a process that looks like it is one thing, but in reality, once you know and accept the truth of HOW it is done, looks a bit like a good magic trick. Right now, Science is like the people in the story going over all the physical details trying to figure it out but they are never going to because they don't know how the trick is done so they mis-spend resources looking in all the wrong places. In our quest to understand more about how memory and information is stored and translated, we need to look outside the box of Science... but science will only accept as "real" that which it can measure... and right now, we cannot measure or track in the non-local, non-linear dimensions, so as far as science is concerned, those crucial keys to our understanding do not exist.... and we continue to be mystified.

What I love most about Radiolab is that you don't let yourselves be stopped by the conventional boundaries of "scientific" inquiry but you are willing to keep one foot firmly in that realm yet feel around in other realms of possibilities. Bravo to you all for such a wonderful program!

Jan. 20 2014 09:08 PM
Pandora K from Los Angeles, California

Very interesting story. It's a shame that an animal was killed, though.

Jan. 20 2014 12:07 PM
D W Shelton from San Francisco

Alternate theory on what's happening in the chrysalis:

The caterpillar and the butterfly are not the same animal, they are two generations of a species. This is similar to jellyfish, which spend one generation as a medusa (what you normally think of when you think of a jellyfish) and one generation as a polyp (which is anchored to an object). They are the same species but alternating generations are dimorphic. The caterpillar asexually reproduces, yielding just one offspring, which is born from it's own cells.

The transfer of information from the caterpillar to the butterfly (such as the smell the caterpillars were subjected to and which the butterflies disliked) is due to epigenetics and is similar to a recently publicized experiment in which one generation of mice were subjected to electric shocks at the same time that they were exposed to an electrical shock. The subsequent two generations, raised apart from the first generation and never having been exposed to the smell before, reacted with apparent anxiety when first exposed to the smell.

Jan. 20 2014 12:01 AM

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