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Physiological Changes

Physiological Changes | Environmental Effects

Development from egg to adult is a continuous process, just like the development of a human embryo from a single cell to a completely formed baby. However, it is useful to think about development during the egg, larval, pupal and adult stages separately. Most of the work described below has actually been done on other insects, but the conclusions apply equally well to monarchs.


The study of egg development through hatching is often called embryology.

The developmental process for most animals begins with fertilization, or the joining of an egg and sperm cell. In monarchs, this occurs right before the egg is laid. As each egg passes down the female's oviduct, a few sperm are released from the sperm storage organ (spermatheca). The nucleus of the sperm and egg join to form a zygote (fertilized egg). Soon after the egg is laid, the nucleus of the zygote starts to divide and the resultant cells form a new larva. The yolk nourishes the developing egg until the larva is ready to hatch four to six days later.

Review the Female Monarch Reproductive System

Egg cross-sectionThe cells that will become different parts of the monarch differentiate early in the development process. Some of the cells form the blastoderm, a layer of cells surrounding the yolk. These cells eventually separate into three categories. The ectoderm cells form part of the digestive system (the mouthparts and crop), the central nervous system, and the exoskeleton. Outgrowths from these cells also form the appendages such as antennae, mandibles, and legs. The mesoderm cells form the muscles, fat bodies and reproductive organs. The endoderm cells form the rest of the digestive system. Cells which will become eggs or sperm (called germ cells) separate from the blastoderm cells relatively early in development, and are eventually folded within a separate membrane. Butterfly and moth embryos make extensive movements within the egg as they develop, and it is possible to see the larva moving within the egg chorion just before it hatches.

Amazingly, the formation of a monarch larva from a single fertilized egg cell takes only four to five days. It is even faster in some other insects, taking only about 30 hours in one kind of mosquito! In still other insects it takes over a month.


Once hatched from the egg, the larva begins to feed and grow. There is little change in body form throughout this period, but many changes are occurring within the larva.

Five monarch instarsSince the larval cuticle, or exoskeleton, will only stretch to a limited extent it must be shed periodically. Monarchs have five larval instars: stages between molting or shedding the cuticle. The picture to the right shows these five stages, illustrating the incredible change in size that occurs in only nine to 14 days. Molting is controlled by a hormone produced in glands in the thorax. It actually involves a whole sequence of events (summarized in Table 1), beginning with the separation of the old cuticle from the epidermal (skin) cells that underlie it, a process called apolysis, and ending with the shedding of the old cuticle, a process called ecdysis. The old cuticle is partially broken down by enzymes, and some of its constituents recycled. When it is first secreted, the new cuticle is protected from these enzymes by a layer of wax. The new cuticle is soft and flexible, thus permitting expansion before it undergoes sclerotization, or hardening.

Table 1. Sequence of Events in Molting

  1. apolysis (separation of old cuticle)
  2. new cuticle production
  3. wax secretion (protects new cuticle)
  4. activation of molting enzymes
  5. ecdysis (shedding of old cuticle)
  6. expansion of the new cuticle
  7. sclerotization (hardening of new cuticle)

After molting, monarch larvae (and the larvae of many other insects) usually eat the shed skin, thus recycling useful nutrients that it still contains.

There is a progressive increase in mass through the larval stages (instars), although the larva loses mass as it molts due to a period of fasting, and the loss of its cuticle and some water. As soon as the molting process is over, the larva starts eating again and rapidly gains mass. Elaine Dunham, working in our MN laboratory in 1998, studied individual larvae to see just how much mass they gained throughout development, and how this was affected by the age of the milkweed that they ate (Dunham, Prysby and Oberhauser 1999).

While the primary function of the larval stage is to eat and gain weight, many developmental changes begin during this stage. There are tiny clusters of cells present inside the larva that will become the wings of adult monarchs (called imaginal disks). The proboscis, palpi, antennae, eyes and reproductive organs also begin to develop. The larval legs will turn into the adult legs. Growth and development of many of these organs speeds up during the last one or two days before pupation, so by the time the larva pupates, major changes to the adult form have already been made.


Pupa diagramSome books describe the process of metamorphosis as one in which the larva "turns to liquid" and is then completely reorganized into an adult. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As described above in the larval development section, many of the adult features begin forming in the larva. However, an immobile pupa stage is required when the larval and adult forms are as different as they are in monarchs. The most dramatic changes that occur in the pupa are the growth of the wings and the development of flight muscles. These things could not occur in an active larva.

When the larva molts into the pupa, the wings and other features that have been developing inside the larva move to the outside, and are visible through the pupa casing. The sperm begin to mature in male pupae, although most egg development takes place after the adult female emerges. The digestive tract changes radically to accommodate the change in diet from milkweed leaves to nectar.


Once the adult monarch has emerged, there are few changes in outward appearances except for the gradual deterioration of the wings and often, a loss of mass over time.

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Internal changes, most of them connected with reproduction, do occur in both sexes. It takes about four days for the eggs to develop after females emerge from the pupa, and females appear to be unwilling to mate until egg development is complete. The process of egg development is triggered by hormonal changes.

Dissected ovary with no eggs Dissected ovary with eggs

Left: This dissected ovary is from a newly-emerged female and contains no eggs. The white material on the ovary consists of fat bodies. Right: This ovary is from a 7-9 day old female and contains eggs in several stages of development. Note the row of regularly shaped objects within the tubular ovarioles.

Even though sperm are produced in late instar larvae and pupal stages, males are not ready to mate until they are three or four days old. The male reproductive tract grows in size after emergence as it builds up accessory gland materials that will be transferred to the female during mating.

Both male and female reproductive development are influenced by environmental conditions. For example, monarchs exposed to decreasing daylength at the end of the summer do not become reproductively mature for several months (see reproductive diapause).

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