By Zak Stone
The transformation of a lowly caterpillar into a graceful butterfly is the kind of shocking fact of nature that's used to get children excited about science, so visible is the transformation, so tangible are the lessons.
But what's actually going on inside the cocoon? Typically, scientists have had to dissect them to find out, killing the organism inside as a result, a casualty of scientific inquiry. Another problem with cutting the cocoon to see what's inside: it only gives the research access to a single moment in the caterpillar's development, an Instagrammed moment as opposed to a Vine of metamorphosis.
Recent progress in 3-D scanning, however, now lets scientists examine the entire transformation of a single caterpillar. According to National Geographic's Ed Yong, that technique is called "micro-CT, in which X-rays capture cross-sections of an object that can be combined into a three-dimensional virtual model."
By dissecting these models rather than the actual insects, the teams [of scientists using the technique] could see the structures of specific organs, like the guts or breathing tubes. They could also watch the organs change over time by repeatedly scanning the same chrysalis over many days. And since insects tolerate high doses of radiation, this procedure doesn't seem to harm them, much less kill them.
Scientists say the new method hasn't drastically changed the way they think about metamorphosis but will make for some "instructive images for textbooks." A yet-to-be-released BBC documentary on metamorphosis will feature footage created with the technique.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.