Caterpillar Art

by Carl Strang

When I visited Shades State Park in Indiana during my Roesel’s katydid trip two weeks ago, I noticed pieces of leaves lying on the ground beneath some of the tulip trees.

The largest fragment gives a close idea of the intact leaf’s shape. The top was chewed out, but the edge would be a straight line connecting the corners.

The semicircular scalloping along the cut edges is the signature of feeding caterpillars. The petioles, or stems of the leaves, were bitten through rather than broken. I was reminded of Bernd Heinrich’s study of such behavior, and his observation that the caterpillars, after feeding, deliberately cut off the leaves. He concluded that the advantage was to get rid of the evidence that a caterpillar was there, eliminating a clue that might draw the eye of a hungry bird. This also might limit the leaf’s ability to inform the tree that caterpillars are feeding, so the tree might not be stimulated to marshal its chemical defenses.

I enjoyed looking at the shapes the caterpillars created, thinking of them as “found art.” Of course, the caterpillars simply are following the dictates of instinct, molded by evolution. They are not purposefully thinking about avoiding predation or creating art works. That’s our job, to understand and appreciate.


1 Comment

  1. Beth Johnson said,

    July 5, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Looks like a Tulip Tree leaf.

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