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Stephen Spotte’s Scientific Word Of The Week: Metamorphosis

Stephen Spotte’s Scientific Word Of The Week: Metamorphosis

Stephen Spotte is a marine scientist and writer. He has published 19 books, including four volumes of fiction, a memoir, and a work of cultural theory. He is a Certified Wildlife Biologist of The Wildlife Society and also holds a U.S. Merchant Marine officer’s license. His popular articles about the sea have appeared in National Wildlife, On the Sound, Animal Kingdom, Explorers Journal, and Science Digest. As a life-long researcher, Stephen holds a soft spot for the possibilities of science’s astonishing unrealities to be mined and their contents allowed to metamorphose into strange shapes and patterns in his fiction writing.

metamorphosis (mass noun)

(in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.


Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, awakes one morning to discover himself changed into a human-sized insect, a creature of astonishing grotesqueness. Kafka’s story is still poked and prodded for its symbolism. What’s the meaning of identity and the self? What does being me, an individual, signify? Metamorphosis in biology is no less dramatic than Samsa’s experience, although I doubt if those species undergoing the process ever stop to ponder its effects. Most are invertebrates and the so-called “lower” vertebrates, such as fishes. Even if they could analyze their situations, metamorphosis is simply another fact of life. We mammals are born looking essentially like our mature selves, just smaller and more helpless. In the animal kingdom’s most salient examples of metamorphosis the transition in shape and function are so dramatic that individual stages often bear no resemblance. Butterflies are classic examples. The egg hatches into a caterpillar that crawls about on multiple appendages, usually feeding on vegetation. Eventually a caterpillar finds an undisturbed location, spins a silk cocoon, and undergoes transformation to an adult. During this quiescent stage it’s known as a chrysalis. When the time is right the chrysalis opens and an adult butterfly emerges, no longer earthbound like a caterpillar but a delicate creature of the air. During its few remaining days of life it feeds on nectar or some other species-specific food, mates, produces eggs, and dies. Too bad Gregor Samsa never became comfortable inside his new skin (excuse me, chitinous shell).


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