KU News Release

Jan. 25, 2010
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855

Space-voyaging butterflies from KU give researchers a trove of information

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LAWRENCE — Investigators have learned much about the monarch butterfly's dependence on gravity from three pioneering insects that recently journeyed into low-Earth orbit.

When the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off in November, the trio of monarch caterpillars from the University of Kansas was aboard for the trip to the International Space Station, becoming the first of their species in space.

Monarch Watch — a KU-based network of students, teachers, volunteers and researchers dedicated to study of the monarch butterfly — provided the caterpillars and a special artificial diet to NASA through their partnership with BioServe Space Technologies.

“We wanted to try to learn as much as we could about this insect and how it functions in space,” said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “This is an insect that seems to use gravity a lot. It has orientation features that indicate that gravity is very important for it.”

For more than 25 days, the three caterpillars fed, molted, pupated, emerged and finally expired in an experimental habitat, influenced by microgravity at every stage.

“The results indicate that pupation and emergence were strongly affected in the near-weightless conditions aboard the ISS,” Taylor said.

Without ordinary gravity, the caterpillars chose unpredictable surfaces for pupation. They then curled into tight “C” shapes with the head of the caterpillar brought close to the abdomen, rather than assuming the normal “J” shape.

The microgravity environment appeared to influence the insects increasingly as their development progressed.

“Although all three caterpillars were able to shed their skin, in two cases the skin formed a cap at the end of the abdomen and the cremaster was not withdrawn from this skin and inserted into the silk pad,” said Taylor. “The third caterpillar did shed its skin but failed to attach to the silk pad and became the first floating pupa.”

Upon emerging from the chrysalises without normal gravitational forces, the butterflies had to force the wings to assume a flat aspect.

“Pumping fluid into the wings did not seem to be sufficient in itself for the monarchs to extend their wings directly over their backs,” said Taylor. “The process, which normally takes three minutes, took at least 15 minutes and the new adults kept moving most of this period, often from side-to-side — a kind of a rocking motion. During most of this time, the wings folded back on themselves.”

Two of the butterflies were able to expand their wings, not perfectly, but well enough so that if on Earth, they would have been able to fly. The wings of the last butterfly to emerge did not form normally.

“This deformity might have been due to the imperfect form of the chrysalis as much as to the conditions in space,” said Taylor.

The KU researcher said that observation of the insects gave investigators fresh questions and new areas of inquiry.

“The overall results and the well-known patterns of monarch behavior on Earth indicate that monarchs have a sense of gravity,” said Taylor. “This conclusion raises the most interesting question of all: How do monarchs caterpillars and adults sense gravity and where is the gravity sensor — or sensors — located? Is it possible that gravity sensors in adults are different from those in larvae?”

Space shuttle Endeavour’s mission STS-130, scheduled for a Feb. 7 launch, will retrieve the monarch habitat from the ISS and return it to Earth.

Updates and additional info will be posted at monarchwatch.org/space.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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