by Joseph DeSisto
By cats I mean caterpillars, of course.
This summer, in addition to working on centipedes, I have a job working in the lab of Dr. David Wagner, an entomologist here at UConn. He studies caterpillars, which means I get to watch hundreds of different species go through metamorphosis. It’s pretty great. Today I’ll share some of my favorites — the caterpillars I give a few extra leaves every day, just because I love them.
But first, a quick lesson on caterpillar anatomy. Here’s Catocala amica, in profile:
Although caterpillars look like they have lots of legs, they actually only have six tiny ones at the front of the body, like all insects. The larger, pad-shaped structures are prolegs, and they will disappear during metamorphosis. Most caterpillars, including this Catocala, have five pairs of prolegs, but others such as inchworms (family Geometridae) have fewer.
Now let’s look at the head:
The bulbous portions of the head are not eyes — the simple eyes, or stemmata, are clustered in the lower corners of the caterpillar’s face. The head is so large because it holds all the muscles needed for what the caterpillar spends virtually all its time doing: eating. The antennae are small and project down, toward the leaf.
In case you’re curious, Catocala amica turns into a large moth, affectionately known as the friendly underwing:
Because a lot of caterpillars turn into butterflies, it might be easy to assume that caterpillars are the “ugly ducklings” of the insect world, a kind of lowly purgatory for insects before they transform into something beautiful. But in many cases, such as in the family Notodontidae, the caterpillar is by far the more visually stunning. Here, for example, is Notodonta torva the moth, pinned and spread as a museum specimen:
But in the Wagner lab, this is what I get to feed and clean up after, every day until it pupates:
Notodontids have some of the wildest-looking caterpillars, with strange outgrowths and protuberances giving them a dragon-like appearance. Here’s another notodontid we’re rearing, in the genus Schizura (I don’t know the species):
Schizura caterpillars are fairly opportunistic — they’ll eat almost any woody plant, unlike many caterpillars which have very specific diets (think of the monarch, which eats only milkweed).
Notodontids are awesome. In the future I think I’ll refer to them as dragon caterpillars. That isn’t their real common name — I just made it up. But of course, all common names are just names people make up. If they make their subjects sound cool, it’s nobody’s loss.
That’s it for caterpillars today, but you can bet there will be more posts about caterpillars in the future.
Although I took the caterpillar pictures in this post, thanks are owed to Dr. David Wagner, who is the proprietor of both the camera and the caterpillars. You can learn more about his work on his lab website, here.