Incomplete Metamorphosis
Dragonfly on a tree with blue background by Lutz Blohm

Incomplete Metamorphosis

Photograph by Lutz Blohm/Flickr


words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph by Lutz Blohm/Flickr
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“I must finally realize that I am subject to these sudden transformations…a crowd of small metamorphoses accumulate in me without my noticing it, and then, one fine day, a veritable revolution takes place.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

When we think of transformation, we often think of insects like moths and butterflies that undergo what’s known as complete metamorphosis, a process I have written about previously in which the insect’s morphology radically alters between four clearly defined stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. It is in the pupa phase, the chrysalis or cocoon, where most of our metaphors of metamorphosis are born, where the larva liquifies and becomes something else entirely.


In the world of entomology, however, another form of morphology exists: incomplete metamorphosis, which is no less worthy of wonder. Rather than a series of defined, dramatic shifts, incomplete metamorphosis consists of an array of gradual changes over an insect’s life cycle. There is still an egg, larva, and adult, but no pupa phase in which it is entirely undone. Instead, the larva will molt (shed its exoskeleton) many times on its journey to maturation.


Of the numerous families of insects that undergo incomplete metamorphosis, perhaps the most remarkable is the Odonata order. Dragonflies demonstrate what entomologists identify as hemimetaboly; they spend most of their lives as aquatic insects, gradually growing and molting underwater until adulthood calls them from below the surface to the sky.


Known as nymphs or naiads, aquatic dragonfly larvae spend anywhere from a few months to five years developing underwater, depending on the species. On average, a nymph will molt between six to 15 times until it is fully grown, each time taking on more of a resemblance to its eventual resplendence. When it is ready for its final transfiguration, it climbs out of the water, begins to breathe air, and trades its weight once more—this time, to spread its wings.


Dragonfly nymphs and naiads get their names from the nature spirits of Ancient Greek mythology (naiads in particular are water spirits), which is fitting considering how much they have to teach us about the ways of our world. Similarly ancient are the dragonflies themselves, going back 325 million years, one of Earth’s oldest insects. In Homer’s Odyssey, nymphs such as Calypso are entwined with time, too—drawing out Odysseus’s long journey home.


As members of the climate movement, we know the frustrations of incremental evolution all too well. Today, the United Nations made public a recent round of climate targets submitted by countries around the world—the total of which would reduce global emissions by one percent. It’s a far cry from the near 50 percent cut that scientists are calling for in order for us to have a fighting chance at averting the worst effects of climate change. We have seen incremental progress for years, and it has value—but the time has come for us to break above the waves.


Some transformations take place overnight, but not all. Much like the dragonfly, the majority of our metamorphoses are much less momentous, and yet they are equally important to our overall evolution. We grow imperfectly, incompletely. I’m talking about the subtle shifts, the months of molting, swimming beneath the surface, wondering what it’s all for—until the moment arrives when you rise above the water only to realize that all the while you thought that you were drowning, you were learning how to fly.

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