Figuring out caterpillars in Ecuador

We may have the entire genome of the zebra finch and the silk moth,  but for so many tropical butterflies we don’t even know the male and the female, or which caterpillar becomes which adult. Why do we know so much about life on earth and yet so often not even know this?

At Las Gralarias , high above Mindo, Ecuador, and across the country a ways at Yanayacu, they are doing something about this by methodically discovering the natural links between life stages. Las Gralarias is Jane Lyons‘ dreamland preserve, a thousand glorious cloud forest acres. Jane has a fascinating life story, once making her home in Austin, Texas. But that is for another entry. Back to the caterpillars.

Tim Kell and Vicki Liu are natural history interns at Las Gralarias. They have each finished their Master’s degrees at Leeds University. One of the things they do is find caterpillars and rear them to adulthood. As they do this, they document what the different stages look like. Tim told us they had fifty caterpillars once, each in its own little bag, each provided patiently with a supply of its preferred host plant, or at least the plant on which it was collected. Now they limit themselves to ten caterpillars at a time, for they have other projects and don’t want to be poor parents. This simple but painstaking process is the only way we can link caterpillar to butterfly or moth, our sometimes to the parasite that hatches out instead.

Once a caterpillar is linked to its butterfly or moth, the story needs to be published, so others can learn from it. Harold Greeney excels in efficiently rearing, identifying and publishing, over at Yanayacu, but the present day grandfather of the process is certainly Dan Janzen, at University of Pennsylvania. Like Jane, he has one place on the planet he works to preserve and understand, the tropical dry forests of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Like Jane, he begs us on his web page to forgo that extra trip to the mall and help him buy more land to preserve. I met Dan Janzen back in 1974 at La Selva where I first began tropical research. He was studying beetles that attack seeds. I was in a class led by Larry Gilbert, and struggling to do independent research.

Could I recommend that you stop everything and become a scholar of caterpillars? Would this be a good project for a Ph.D. or even a Masters degree? No, I would have to say, for you must have a big question; what is this caterpillar will not do. This is sad for conservation because it is essential knowledge, necessary for species preservation.

Is description never enough? If what you want to describe is a DNA sequence, or the pathway of an enzyme, then everyone accepts description. But for caterpillars it is not enough. Nor is it enough for all the related projects where description is the goal, from when plants flower, when birds nest, even what is where. These descriptions must be left to others, to those with more time, be they amateurs or retired people, or the lucky true naturalists or academics with time for side projects. So I am so glad that Vicki and Tim are taking the time now, while they still can. Dan Janzen once managed by writing grant proposals for a small set of beetles and their seeds, then studying the whole forest with the funding, or so he told me back in 1974, if I remember correctly. Others may manage by connecting natural history to theory, but this will inevitably involve much more varied work, perhaps detracting from cataloging life stages.

Others can also tie conceptual arguments to basic natural history, and expand both our theoretical knowledge, then sort out what is what in the tangle of life. Jane has drawn a circle around a treasure of land, then found the means to understand it. For how often do we lose forever what we have not yet understood to the logging truck or the cattle ranch?

If you can, support this work with a contribution to the Las Gralarias Foundation. I just did. Or you could visit and see what I’m talking about. It is a short flight to Quito, and then Jane will have Juan Carlos pick up you up and take you to Las Gralarias.

Tropical reserves need sturdy fences.

Dairy cattle chew away the forest.


Tim Kell at one of his butterfly traps.


One species for which we know the life history. I’ll insert its name later.


The impatient males barely wait for a female to emerge before mating commences.


A group of eggs. A book could be written on where and how to lay your eggs to minimize predation and parasitism, while maximizing egg output over time.


The caterpillar.


The pupa.


David Queller and Joan Strassmann at the magic waterfall where interns have been rumored to skinny dip.


The legendary Jane Lyons and intern Vicki Liu.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to Figuring out caterpillars in Ecuador

  1. James C. Trager says:

    This could be the work of at least one lifetime, or several, but a good start could be made while getting a degree.
    We have a somehwat analogous situation with ants. The larvae are always associated with workers, on which most of the taxonomy is based, but the winged males are often caught in isolation after flying out of the nest. In some groups (especially army ants), they are so different from the workers that one cannot even guess as to their identity, and parallel male and worker taxonomies exist. DNA study has begun to resolve this.

  2. Doug Mock says:

    A couple years ago, I wrote a small biographical profile of Margaret Morse Nice, the doyenne of American ornithology, who was once just a trapped faculty-spouse living about 200 meters from our house in Norman, OK. Intellectually restless, she began her field studies here by doing a very basic cataloging of local birds, which eventually expanded into Oklahoma’s first “state bird book.” As I learned more about her, I realized just how cosseted my generation of bird biologists are. An hour in the library provides one with the full list of which species are here, along with color paintings (or photos, if you prefer) by terrific artists in books competing for our business. Of course I am showing my age by mentioning books (student: What’s a “library?”), as this exercise need not pull one from behind one’s computer. But Joan’s point about the agenda having moved on from field description (which job is never complete) to asking deeper questions and pressing forward. Mrs. Nice exemplified that, too, as her real fame was not from documenting the basics for future Oklahoma bird students, but from pressing on herself. The story is well known, but centers around her inventing color-banding and getting into the heads of some song sparrows in Columbus, Ohio (her husband having moved from OU to Ohio State). By the time she’d applied her second band, she was noticing that the now-recognizable males had different temperaments (behold the ‘new’ field of behavioral syndromes!) and had flip-flopped from a multi-species cataloger to a single-species question asker. We ornithologists are still spoiled rotten (color bands…what a good idea!!!), but we all must take what we can from the work that has gone before.

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