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.