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GO- The Wonderfully Wild World of Caterpillars

FIT Staff
Oct 20, 2013
I have a new love.
 
Yes, I know I've already proclaimed that once on this blog before. I was talking about paddling. I still love it. I just also love caterpillars. Yes caterpillars, you read me right. 
 
One of the cool things about being a naturalist is that I 'have' to learn about stuff like this. Working in a park district allows me to let my inner dork out- and believe me, you have no idea- I had no idea- just how much of a 'dork' I am. But I love it, my dorkiness because, well this stuff is really cool! If you look at any of the following pictures and don't think in your head for just one moment 'whoa' or something along those lines...well, I'm not sure cause I'm pretty much banking on your amazement here! 
 
A little background on caterpillars. Caterpillars are the larvae of moths or butterflies, order Lepidoptera. There are 13,000 species of Lepidoptera north of Mexico and 5,000 of those occur east of the Mississippi. That's a lot! The more species there are, the more chances you have of seeing them! 
 
In general (read-there are exceptions), the big difference between moths and butterflies is that moths fly at night and butterflies during the day. Lepidoptera have four life stages- egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (crysalis for butterflies, cocoons for moths) and adult (moth or butterfly). 
 
Caterpillars have six legs (all insects do, by the way). They also have prolegs that are equipped with little hooks called crochets. These help the the cat hang on to the substrate. They have six pairs of eyes called stemmata positioned in a semicircle on each side of its head. They see changes of light but no real images. Caterpillars breath through spiracles or respiratory pores on the sides of the body. The silk a cat produces is released by the spinneret on the lower side of the head. Enough anatomy. 
 
Caterpillars eat a variety of food plants. Whenever you find a cat, be sure to note what you find it on. It can often help in identification later. Another tip when looking for caterpillars- go at night. Caterpillars play an integral role in the food chain. Their primary predator is...I'll give you a hint, they have wings! Birds are active during the day so caterpillars hide as best they can, either as cool leaf mimics or simply buried in the leaf litter below their food plants.
 
Onto the caterpillar photos you have by now checked out. The first caterpillar was one I had been secretly pining to see. The Beautiful Wood Nymph. Pictured also is the moth. I saw this beauty at a porch light in Hocking during the summer of 2011. 
 
The Saddleback caterpillar is always a crowd pleaser with its stinging spires and ghoulish eyes. How awesome is that? I even painted my pumpkin in its likeness this year! Moving onto the Monkey slug. I think it looks like a pipe cleaner after my 3 year old niece got ahold of it. These caterpillars are said to be tarantula mimics. Yes, the tarantula spider. What does that spider have to do with a caterpillar? Birds eat caterpillars. Birds migrate from the neotropics north during the summer months. Tarantulas live in the neotropics. Birds do not eat tarantulas. Makes sense to me! 
 
The last cat I'll leave you with is the Waved Sphinx. This stunner was found on an ash tree on a deserted gravel road next to a cemetery in Kentucky. Caterpillar hunting is definitely not for the faint of heart! 
 
I have a bunch of other cool cats to share with you so be sure to check back in the coming weeks!