Monday, August 19, 2013

Imaginal Discs (or, Why You Should Never Believe Phrases Written in Calligraphy)

You know those inspirational cards and posters that say something like, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, he turned into a butterfly”?

I understand the idea—that sometimes tremendous and painful or frightening upheaval leads to wonderful things—but I think people need to stop using insect metamorphosis as the comparison.

Why, you ask? Because insect metamorphosis is horrible. And the final product not only bears very little resemblance to the initial one, but it is only in the loosest sense the same creature at all.

Here’s what happens: in the pupa, the caterpillar doesn’t just go through some dramatic changes akin to the special effects we see in werewolf movies, where, as it grimaces, its legs lengthen and its wings sprout from its back. No, the caterpillar dissolves. Literally.

All that’s left of it, apart from a liquid mess, are these clusters of cells called “imaginal discs” that contain all the genetic information and coding necessary to create a butterfly.

The cells in these discs divide and develop into body parts by sucking up energy from the swampy (but proteineous) remains of what was once the caterpillar—and it is the product of the development of those discs that is the emerging butterfly.

Not exactly inspirational, is it? More like a horror movie, right? I mean, here’s this caterpillar, going about its business, living its life, and all the time inside it are these little clusters of cells just waiting for the time-bomb of the caterpillar’s developmental cycle to make it disintegrate into a sack of ooze so they can become a beautiful flying creature.

Imagine being seeded with the germs of your own destruction—or ascendance, depending on how much importance you place on the fact that the butterfly shares its genetic material with the caterpillar. Imagine being just the vehicle—and food truck—for the real, reproductive, snazzily winged main event.

Maybe it is a transcendent sort of a concept. But, I don’t know; it just doesn’t say “greeting card” to me.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

LOVED the commentary, and the photo's impressive, too. What's the lighter part on the caterpillar, do you know?

Good Ol' Ant said...

Great post.

Maybe the greeting cards just need to change their messages -- you know, to something like

"On life's journey, make sure you take the time to stop and smell the ooze."

"Pour etre belle, il faut souffrir."

"When I look back on photos of myself as a caterpillar, it's as if I'm looking at a totally different person. Hey! I am!"

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

Thank you both!
I like the other message ideas--though what's the French for, "In order to be beautiful, you must become sludge, out of which will form a different organism that just happens to share your DNA" -?

It *is* a little long, though...

Good Ol' Ant said...

I believe that the SCIENTIFIC French for "In order to be beautiful, you must become sludge, out of which will form a different organism that just happens to share your DNA" is (I'm sorry I can't put in the accent marks for fear of them showing up strangely when this comment is posted, so you'll just have to imagine they're there) "Pour etre belle, il fault devinir slougee,d'ou formera une organisme differente qui vient d'appartiner votre DNA." I believe this translation is sanctioned by the French Academie and Les Hommes et Femmes de la Science (l'HFS).

Anca said...

I think good ol' Ant meant "sanctioned" as in criminal sanctions against the French language. It's amazing how he does not hesitate to plunge into such perilous waters, but only linguistically:).

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for the clarification. Last week, Kevin said, "Do you see anything on my back. It itches." I looked and said, "I don't see anything." He said, "Sometimes I worry I am turning into something else."
I guess we all have this fear and dread.

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