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Live from BugFest – Crawling Caterpillars

September 16, 2017

By Kiera Tai and Arthur Vu, Teen Newsroom producers.

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar uses mimicry to look like a ferocious baby snake. It’s very effective at deterring predators.

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar uses mimicry to look like a ferocious baby snake. It’s very effective at deterring predators. Photo by Kiera Tai.

Fuzzy, spiky, and most importantly, cute. These are some of the many characteristics of caterpillars. At BugFest, we were able to glimpse just a part of the immense biodiversity of caterpillars in our local area.

Countless species of caterpillars resting on various plants span several tables along Edenton Street in downtown Raleigh. Visitors are eager to view the gigantic Hickory Horned Devil, the largest caterpillar in North America, which can grow to the size of a hot dog; the adorable Spicebush Swallowtail (quite the Caterpie look-alike, for you Pokémon fans), with its cartoonish fake eyespots; the fuzzy Puss caterpillar, capable of sending humans to the hospital with its venomous sting, and many more. These miniature creatures are surprisingly un-elusive, if you know how to look. In fact, all of the caterpillars on display at BugFest today were caught in the past week. Black frass (or insect droppings), chewed-up leaves, and leafless branches are tell-tale signs that caterpillars have recently ravaged an area. The true challenge arises after the caterpillars have been caught, as they require frequent leaf changes for food, and constant attention in case they wander off. Thus, all the caterpillars will be released back into the wild after BugFest, but they sure provide a viewing treat before then!

Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar

The Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar has the potential of being as large as a hot dog, but this one is only the size of a Vienna sausage. Photo by Kiera Tai.

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

Monarch butterflies make a green chrysalis with a distinctive yellow-dotted strip near the top. Photo by Arthur Vu.

pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

The Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar features two antennae that can detach to fight against other, competing caterpillars. Photo by Kiera Tai.

If you can properly identify a friendly and non-stinging caterpillar, the best way to interact is to coax it to crawl into your hand — touching a caterpillar can be a great experience! However, avoid touching any caterpillar that you don’t recognize as safe, as they may sting or harm you. Your average interaction with caterpillars can also serve as an opportunity for citizen science. The Caterpillars Count project analyzes the impact of caterpillars on the environment, and also assesses the effects of climate change on caterpillars. Everyday citizens volunteer to collect caterpillars in various locations and share their data via surveying methods. Visit caterpillarscount.unc.edufor more information.

The Puss caterpillar is famous for its furry exterior, and infamous for its venomous spines and dermatitis-inducing hairs.

The Puss caterpillar is famous for its furry exterior, and infamous for its venomous spines and dermatitis-inducing hairs. Photo by Kiera Tai.

The Caterpillarology station at BugFest provided a close up view of some of our most diverse neighbors — a fun and informative reminder that there is so much out there, if we are willing to look.

hummingbird clearwing caterpillar

This Hummingbird Clearwing caterpillar is on the search for more leaves on its Viburnum twig. Photo by Arthur Vu.

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