Caterpillar Invasion

On Tuesday, September 21, Sam Jaffe (Founder and Executive Director) and Jesse Varga (Lab Manager) of The Caterpillar Lab visited Dublin with an incredible assortment of native caterpillars.  The diversity of local caterpillar species also revealed an amazing wealth of surprising adaptations and behaviors. 

Caterpillars are unique in that prior to metamorphosis they don’t have to provide for adult behaviors, such as mating. Instead, caterpillars’ biological goal is solely to eat and avoid being eaten.  This leads to incredibly defined adaptations. “You have these incredible caterpillars that mimic snakes, caterpillars with inflatable tails, ones that spray acid from the gland under their head – every imaginable defense and it is not muddied up by the other pressures of the adult life because they go through this complete metamorphosis,” Sam Jaffe says. “The young of other animals have to also consider the pressures of the adult because they continue on basically with the same form.”

Caterpillar Gallery - All photos taken at Dublin School.

These great variations also lead to some surprising differences with other species. At this point researchers are not able to tell the gender of a caterpillar or whether this is subject to change based on conditions in metamorphosis.  Certain caterpillars also exhibit high levels of phenotypic plasticity which is the ability of one genotype to produce more than one phenotype when exposed to different environments.  In short, some indigenous caterpillars will show different coloring or camouflage patterns depending upon their diet or environmental surroundings.

These behavioral characteristics make a great entry point for the study of genetics and evolutionary biology. Science Chair and Biology teacher, Katri Jackson points out that students tend to reflect back on this day throughout the year, as they point to caterpillar behaviors that demonstrate larger scientific truths.  Katri says that the most rewarding part of this day is the number of students that took Biology a couple of years ago and flock into the classroom when the caterpillars are on campus.  “It appeals to everyone - from freshmen to seniors, even faculty from completely different disciplines. This summer I got a text from Fiona Johnson (St. Lawrence University ’20) saying that she had found a cool caterpillar in the woods. That’s when you know the impact.”