Friday, December 7, 2012

Caterpillars are fascinating - really!

A pair of jumbo Cecropia Moth caterpillars, Hyalaphora cecropia, make mincemeat of a black cherry sapling. This spectacular "cat" is but one of about 3,000 species of moth larvae eating their way through our woods and fields.

I'm giving a program entitled "Growing Caterpillars: A Tale of Birds, Plants, and Conservation" at the Columbus Natural History Society next Monday evening, December 10th. The price of admission is just right - free! The Society meets at the Ohio State University's Museum of Biological Diversity at 1315 Kinnear Rd., Columbus, Ohio 43210. Doors open at 7 pm; the show gets under way at 7:30 pm. All are welcome.

A Checker-fringe Prominent caterpillar, Schizura ipomoea, does its best to become one with a black maple leaf, and it's doing a pretty darn good job if you ask me.

I've had a casual interest in caterpillars for a long time, but really started becoming passionate about studying them in the last five years. Why? I began to realize just how important these tubular eating machines are to our environment. It's hardly an understatement to say that caterpillars make the world go 'round.

A tiny work of art, painted and shellacked, a gorgeous caterpillar known as The Asteroid, Cucullia asteroides, chows on flat-topped goldenrod. All caterpillars are intriguing on some front, whether it is beauty, camouflage, toxicity, bizarre defense systems, ecological value, or any combination of the above.

If you were able to toss all of Ohio's caterpillars into a pile, and a honking big pile it would be, their collective biomass would exceed that of a more conspicuous herbivore, the White-tailed Deer. If it were not for all of these caterpillars, many songbirds would go extinct, forests would largely fall silent, plant diversity would plummet, and our humanoid world would suffer greatly.

Sporting bright coloration warning would-be predators that it is poisonous and unpalatable, a Black Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio polyxenes, caterpillar noshes on cowbane, Oxypolis rigidior, one of our native parsleys. Even though butterflies garner the lion's share of attention, they are outnumbered by moth species by a factor of 20 in these parts. Even though they may be underappreciated, it is moths that do the heavy ecological lifting, especially stage II of their four-part life cycle, the caterpillars.

If you're in the Columbus area next Monday and want to learn more about a strange and mysterious world with far-reaching impacts, come on down to the Columbus Natural History Society's get-together. Directions are RIGHT HERE.

1 comment:

Sharkbytes said...

Beautiful! I've seen a couple of those. The one on the black maple leaf is amazing. I had to really work at it to figure it out.