Ranching Caterpillars

I'm in the caterpillar ranching business this week. One of my postdoc mentors works on butterflies, and I'm helping him get more raised while he is out of town.

Caterpillar ranching works a little like this: baby caterpillars start out tiny and then grow big and strong as they roam the wilds of the flower beds, munching their way through everything in sight. Then, once they're ginormous and start stretching out along plant stalks or hit the road, quickly covering some serious ground, then I round them up.

These are some pretty bad-ass caterpillars: red and black and spiky. And when they get angry, little yellow horns emerge from their heads. Seriously. Red and black like that: we call that warning coloration, ladies and gentlemen. Which is good, because these guys eat plants with toxic compounds that they sequester in their cute little bad-ass bodies.

Anyway, after the daily caterpillar round-up, I move them into the caterpillar stockyard, which is a cage full of yummy plants and a luxury rack on which they can attach themselves and pupate. Sort of like a caterpillar spa. It seems these guys are quite ravenous, because I can never keep them stocked with enough leaves. The cage will be full one afternoon and they will have eaten them down to the stems and less by the next day.

After they form their little chrysalis, which honestly looks like something from a science fiction film- all spiky and weird-looking, then they go into a large netted cage for their emergence as adults. Below is an adult: you can sort of see the irridescence in the wings. And of course, the coloration on their underside has blue and white spots. This adult is basking, which seems to be the scientific term for "chillaxin'" And of course, its a great way to gain some heat for the whole thermoregulation thing.
Honestly, I used to think butterflies were boring, but pretty little things that floated around, and people planted bushes for them, and you could pay chunks of cash to walk around in a greenhouse or a tent full of them (where if you were lucky, you'd find some big praying mantids with a pile of butterfly wings underneath them). But now that I've seen this species learning in the lab (with amazing speed) and searching for their host plant out in the desert (far more successfully than I did), I have concluded that this is a seriously cool system.


Night squirrel said...

Those are some chunky caterpillars. They must look like Outback steaks to birds.

Tripletmom said...

Those are very pretty!

We raise butterflies every summer... painted ladies. We get them from a mail order insect place lol. They come with their own food and we have a butterfly house and once they've made the chrysalis I move the paper on top that they are all attached to into the net house and pin it onto the side. We let them go a few days later and we keep seeing painted ladies all summer long.

My kids keep asking if we can raise a different kind this year (especially blue morphos), or just collect any caterpillars we find outside... but I cannot find blue morphos to order... and just don't know if we should just pluck them out of the wild since I have no idea what kind of caterpillars they would be and what they would eat.

I had no idea they were so smart, though! What are they learning in the lab. Maybe we can do some experiments on teaching painted ladies something this summer lol.

Tripletmom said...

"We let them go a few days later"

I meant a few days after they've emerged from the chrysalis.

Milja said...

Tripletmom- that is so cool! They are training these butterflies to land on certain colors using an extract from their host plant (and from that simple arrangement, you can design all kinds of experiments). But you should be able to use a nice sugar solution also. At least its worth a try.

Milja said...

And Night Squirrel- those caterpillars might look like Outback steaks, but then the birds taste them and realize they got Davanni's instead. And then they puke.

Tripletmom said...

Milja, check your PM on Yuku ASAP

Anonymous said...

I think everyone should work full time on learning and cognition in these butterflies. It is clearly the best research system ever and work on these butterflies cannot fail to advance our scientific knowledge. Can they learn more than one color at once?

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