Discovering the Diversity of New England’s Caterpillars

My summer internship is with a non-profit organization called The Caterpillar Lab in Marlborough, New Hampshire. The mission of the lab is to educate communities about the unique and diverse native Lepidopteran (moths and butterflies) species with a focus on their caterpillars via educational programs, photography and research; showcasing native species is a strong emphasis as it creates awareness and care for the local habitats that need more attention.

My role largely focuses on assisting with species care (the wrangle) and educational outreach. Each day, the caterpillars must be cared for and fresh host plants collected. The wrangle includes cleaning out frass, supplying the caterpillars with fresh hosts and checking the animals’ overall health and wellbeing. The lab cares for hundreds of Lepidopteran species and developing a general understanding of their varying host plants is important. The list of needed hosts extends from the most commonly used plants of black cherry and red oaks to supplying food for specialists that rely on some unusual hosts such as pitcher plants and even aphids.

Wrangling the beloved woolly bears.

For educational outreach, we travel throughout New England to lead programs by partnering with other organizations such as museums, schools, public gardens, etc. At these programs, we set up numerous plant displays, each with caterpillars on them. I provide support by addressing questions and talking to the visitors. We foster conversations that go beyond simply looking at the caterpillars and present our knowledge and narratives for each species on display. Our engagement creates rare opportunities for newfound appreciations of the complex mechanisms of natural selection and natural history that depicts the interconnectedness of nature. 

Mothing is one interactive program that highlights our immense local biodiversity.

The displays are made to highlight each Lepidoptera’s evolutionary traits relating to concepts such as species interactions, camouflage, mimicry, aposematism and physical and chemical defenses. We emphasize how these characteristics fulfill ecological niches and are overall more complex than many typically understand. Just within camouflage and mimicry, further diversification can be observed. Some blend in as twig mimics, thorn mimics, leaf edge mimic, bark mimics, bird dropping mimics and some even use plant materials to conceal themselves, such as the bagworms and decorator caterpillars. These adaptations are so well evolved that if you do not know what to look for, they are easily overlooked. Because of this, we often hear visitors conclude, “we must pass so many without even noticing!”. This speaks to a greater overarching theme for our local wildlife; many of the unique native species are hidden and unknown yet essential for ecosystems and ecosystem services, therefore it is vital to promote connections to a person’s local wildlife and inspire them to want to protect the biodiversity right in their backyards for the wellbeing of nature and people alike.

This is an Abbott’s sphinx which demonstrates an incredible snake mimic with its false eye. A great demonstration of evolution.

By diving deeper into these topics, I would like to continue learning about New England’s native caterpillars and plants. In the field of conservation biology, understanding a native ecosystem’s flora and fauna along with its species interactions is crucial, so developing my knowledge in these topics will be imperative for my future. Furthering my own learning will allow me to translate it to the audience, and continue my development as an educator to inspire others in the subject of ecology and entomology. Finally, I intend to add to this goal by improving my photography and applying it as a tool for engagement, awareness and education.

Author: Forrest Shimazu

I am currently a third-year student at Brandeis University, majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Climate Justice, Science and Policy as well as Studio Art. I am interested in pursuing wildlife conservation through photography, education and research.