Concluding my Internship with The Caterpillar Lab

Through this internship, I have met my goals to better understand New England’s caterpillars and plants. By caring for the animals, I began to familiarize myself with each species’ characteristics as well as gaining an understanding for identifying the native plants they eat. I especially furthered my learning of these species by listening to my peers at the lab and during programs. Once I grasped these facts and concepts I was then able to share it with visitors at programs. Programs were an important aspect of diving deeper into each caterpillars’ unique evolutionary traits as well as teaching broader concepts of ecology and the importance of species interactions. 

While I always loved insects, I was mainly drawn to the larger vertebrate species growing up. These used to be the animals I wanted to conserve the most, but through this opportunity, I gained a new appreciation for invertebrates and their critical roles in the ecosystem. The world of conservation is extremely devoted to protecting the large animals and this leads to people forgetting to protect and fund invertebrates. By learning the important yet overlooked facts about the roles of insects, it became apparent that these larger iconic animals and ecosystems cannot be well protected without conserving the staple organisms such as plants and insects. 

In New England, caterpillars consume more plant material than all other herbivores combined and are crucial in breaking down plants and becoming a new energy source for other organisms. On top of this, we can then see that wasps are the most prevalent consumers of caterpillars and without them, the caterpillar would be overpopulated and far too destructive to the ecosystem. This example interaction demonstrates the need for both caterpillars and wasps in an ecosystem to sustain a healthy ecosystem.

Insect decline is a serious threat to most ecosystems, yet it is often left behind in conservation planning. I’ve learned about the declines and local extinctions of these amazing caterpillars that provide significant ecosystem services and become far more aware of the need to protect and restore their populations. 

This experience has inspired me to explore new topics and ideas that I would like to pursue in the near future. It has completely changed the way I view wildlife, and I believe that it is a great internship for any students that are interested in conservation. I would recommend applying for this internship even if you may not love or be familiar with entomology. It can definitely make you fall in love with these beautiful animals and provide you with a learning experience from extremely knowledgeable people.  

The Complexity and Interconnectedness of Nature

The opportunity to work at The Caterpillar Lab has given me new perspectives in the subject of conservation and ecology. While I understood the basic important roles of arthropods in an ecosystem as consumers and resources for other animals, the complexity of these species interactions are incomprehensible. 

My favorite example to demonstrate this complexity is in the subject of parasitoids. Parasitoids are insects that live and feed in/on another insect as a larva and once they further their development, they eventually eclose as adults killing and leaving the host insect. The majority of the parasitoids are wasps, which are extremely diverse and arguably the most diverse order of animals. These interactions range from generalists that lay in many host species to parasitoids that are specialized and only have a single species they can target. While this interaction is complicated enough, we can further observe hyperparasitoids. Hyperparasitoids are parasitoids for parasitoids and these are often specific to a species, genus or a group of genera.

Parasitoid wasp cocoons on a spiny oak-slug caterpillar.

When I finally thought this could not get any more complicated, I was informed that this has been observed to the sixth level. Therefore, it is possible that a single insect can have a parasitoid with a hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid. This is only one of many amazing examples of how evolution has crafted the natural world. Best of all, we do not need to go far to uncover parasitoid and hyperparasitoid interactions, as they can be found right in our backyards. 

By listening to my peers talk about these fascinating animals, I find that this internship has taught me far more specific details in ecology than any course at Brandeis. Our education at Brandeis is much more limited in time and tends to focus from a broader perspective, but in this position, I am constantly able to learn from others that are outstandingly knowledgeable in their narrow studies of entomology. With all the new information, I can begin to connect these overlooked interactions to Brandeis’ broader studies of ecology and comprehend the value of the forgettable species. All these animals, even the smallest hyperparasitoid wasps that we can barely see, play key roles in their environment and are vulnerable to our destructive actions towards wildlife and are in dire need of conservation. 

Parasitoid wasps that eclosed from a smartweed dagger caterpillar.

After this internship concludes, I would like to continue sharing what I have learned with the greater Brandeis community. I am hopeful to introduce mothing and other programs that highlight local biodiversity with the support from Brandeis Sustainability and the Environmental Studies Department. As part of Brandeis Sustainability Ambassadors, I would like to lead and organize these programs that bring the untaught animals to the forefront and highlight their value to their ecosystems as well as to us. Professor Colleen Hitchcock and Mary Fischer have provided me with tremendous amounts of support in finding the love for arthropods, and I hope to continue working with them to bring native entomology to our campus and classrooms.

Beyond Brandeis, This internship has taught me to learn the importance of the overlooked species and continue expanding my horizon. From a conservation standpoint, only focusing on protecting the flagship species can lead to conservation failures. Ecosystems are deeply intertwined, and to care for one species means caring for all the other species in the environment. 

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.