Metamorphosis is truly one of nature’s most magical processes. The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog is so incredible that it almost seems unbelievable.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The most well-known animals that undergo complete metamorphosis are insects (like butterflies), amphibians (like frogs), and certain marine invertebrates (like sea stars).

The life cycle of these animals includes four main stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the details of metamorphosis and highlight the major animal groups that exhibit this amazing process of change.

What is Metamorphosis?

Definition and types of metamorphosis

Metamorphosis is the process by which animals undergo a drastic physical change to transition from one phase of life to the next. There are two main types of metamorphosis:

  • Complete metamorphosis – The animal goes through four stages – egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Examples include butterflies, beetles, flies, and bees.
  • Incomplete metamorphosis – The animal goes through three stages – egg, nymph, and adult. Nymphs resemble smaller versions of the adult without wings or functioning reproductive organs. Examples include grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches.

Complete vs. incomplete metamorphosis

The key difference between complete and incomplete metamorphosis is the presence of the pupal stage. In complete metamorphosis, the larva transforms into a pupa which is enclosed in a protective cocoon (For more detailed statistics, please check this educational site).

Inside the pupal case, the insect’s body breaks down completely into an undifferentiated mass of cells and is reconstructed into the adult form. This massive overhaul enables larvae and adults to adapt to very different ecological niches, a handy evolutionary trick!

Complete Metamorphosis Incomplete Metamorphosis
4 stages – egg, larva, pupa, adult 3 stages – egg, nymph, adult
Larva and adult have different diets Nymph and adult have same diet
Examples: butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, bees Examples: grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches

In contrast, in incomplete metamorphosis, the nymphs hatch out of eggs looking like miniature wingless adults. As they grow, they progressively resemble the final adult form, often going through several molts.

Since nymphs and adults occupy the same habitats, there is no need for drastic reconstruction of body plan. Species with incomplete metamorphosis retain same diet and behavior through life cycle.

Animals That Undergo Complete Metamorphosis


Many insects such as butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, bees, ants, grasshoppers, crickets undergo a process called complete metamorphosis in their life cycles. Complete metamorphosis has four stages – egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

For example, a butterfly starts as an egg, hatches into a caterpillar (larva), then forms a chrysalis (pupa) and finally emerges from the chrysalis as a beautiful winged adult butterfly. During the pupal stage, the insect’s body structure is radically reorganized and transformed for its adult form.

Research by entomologists show that this metamorphic process equips insects for specialized roles and survival strategies in nature.


Many amphibians like frogs, toads and salamanders go through a striking metamorphic transition during their early stages. A frog begins life as an egg, hatches as a legless larva or tadpole that lives fully submerged in water and has gills for breathing.

Over time, the tadpole develops legs, lungs replace gills, tail recedes and it transforms into the recognizable adult frog form adapted to live on both water and land. According to herpetologists, this metamorphosis allows the immature amphibian to occupy an ecological niche different from the adult’s niche.

Marine invertebrates like sea stars

Some familiar marine invertebrates also undergo radical body transformations in their life cycle. The larvae of sea stars look nothing like the adults – they are bilaterally symmetrical and free-swimming. But they later develop into radially symmetrical sea stars.

Sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers similarly have larvae very unlike their adult forms. Marine biologists theorize that this larval metamorphic process enables the species to disperse over greater distances in the ocean during their early life which aids their ecological spread and survival.

The Four Main Stages of Complete Metamorphosis


The first stage in the metamorphosis of insects like butterflies and moths is the egg stage. The adult female lays her eggs, usually on or near the food source that the larvae will eat once they hatch.

The eggs contain all the nutrients and protective coating that the developing embryos will need in order to survive and transform into larvae.

Butterfly and moth eggs vary widely in colors and shapes depending on the species. Some eggs may be round and smooth while others have intricate sculpturing on the outer chorion layer. Eggs are usually laid on plants, but some species lay them on other substrates like soil, rotting wood, animal dung or carcasses.


The larva or caterpillar stage is the second phase of complete metamorphosis. Larvae hatch from eggs and their main purpose is to feed and grow. Caterpillars molt several times as they grow, shedding their external skeletons which become too small for their increasing body size.

Since larvae need to eat a lot, most of their time and energy is spent consuming plant matter. Some species are agricultural pests that damage crops. Others have characteristic food sources, like monarch caterpillars which only eat milkweed plants.

Larvae store energy reserves that will help power their upcoming metamorphic phase.


The third stage of complete metamorphosis is the pupa or chrysalis phase. This is a time of rest and transformation for the insect. Larvae attach themselves to a surface and shed their final skin to reveal the protective pupal covering.

On the inside, the insect’s tissues are undergoing radical change and reorganization as the larval structures break down and adult ones form. This process utilizes the energy reserves and nutrients stored by the caterpillar.

When metamorphosis is complete, the pupal skin splits open so the mature adult insect can emerge.


The fourth and final stage of complete metamorphosis is the winged, reproductive adult. Butterflies and moths that emerge from their pupae look nothing like the caterpillars they once were. Their bodies are specialized for finding mates and reproducing.

Key adult structural adaptations can include a proboscis for drinking nectar, compound eyes, antennae to detect pheromones and wing scales. Some butterflies even still have a small remnant of the shed caterpillar head capsule still attached to the base of their antennae.

After mating, adult females search for the right host plants to lay their fertilized eggs on, and the metamorphic lifecycle begins anew. Most butterflies and moths live just long enough to produce offspring since they lack the biting mouthparts to feed on much as adults.

Interesting Facts About Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis and evolution

Metamorphosis is an amazing evolutionary adaptation that has allowed certain animal species to thrive. By transforming their bodily structure, these animals are able to better adapt to different habitats and lifestyles at various stages of their development.

For example, caterpillars can maximize their food intake with their eating-optimized bodies before transforming into winged butterflies. Frogs undergo a tadpole stage optimized for aquatic life, before developing legs and lungs to live on land.

Metamorphosis likely evolved as a result of specialized needs at different development phases, enabling species to fully exploit the resources of their environment.

Defense mechanisms in the pupa stage

The pupa stage is a vulnerable period for animals undergoing metamorphosis. To protect themselves, pupae have evolved fascinating defense strategies! Butterfly and moth pupae use camouflage by mimicking leaves, sticks or bird droppings. Other pupae form protective cocoons from silk or soil.

Beetle pupae have hardened exoskeletons. Mosquito pupae even swim away rapidly from threats! These adaptations help pupae survive through their sedentary stage until they emerge in their adult form.

Hormonal regulation of metamorphosis

Metamorphosis involves drastic changes to an animal’s body plan, which are precisely controlled by hormones. In insects, juvenile hormones maintain the larval form. A decrease in juvenile hormones allows pupation when the larva transforms into the pupa.

Subsequently, an increase in ecdysone hormones signals the activation of genes that reorganize the body structure to form the adult insect. In amphibians, the hormone thyroxine stimulates resorption of the tadpole’s tail while promoting leg growth.

Hormones orchestrate metamorphosis by activating specific target genes at precise times, resulting in an orderly transformation of the body.


Metamorphosis is an incredible process that allows animals to transform their bodies as they mature. This adaptation allows larval forms to be optimized for eating and growth, while adults are specialized for reproduction and dispersal.

While metamorphosis may seem mystical, it is simply an evolutionary innovation that has allowed many animal species to better adapt and thrive. The magical transformation from caterpillar to butterfly serves as an excellent and visually stunning example of the wonder of natural selection.

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