Noah Brier | March 21, 2023

The Caterpillar Edition

On science, rebirths, and the food chain

Noah here. At some point, probably ten years ago, I first learned about what happens when a caterpillar goes into a cocoon. I proceeded to go around telling everyone I could find how insane the process of metamorphosis was. A small creature builds a little house and proceeds to disintegrate into goop, only to be put back together as a butterfly (or moth, or a handful of other bugs). The process is absolutely mind-boggling. After dissolving itself inside the cocoon, the only things left are called imaginal discs. “Before hatching,” explains Scientific American, “when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on.” The article continues:

Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth. The imaginal disc for a fruit fly's wing, for example, might begin with only 50 cells and increase to more than 50,000 cells by the end of metamorphosis. Depending on the species, certain caterpillar muscles and sections of the nervous system are largely preserved in the adult butterfly. One study even suggests that moths remember what they learned in later stages of their lives as caterpillars.


Why is this interesting?

I was reminded of this reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest excellent New Yorker piece, “The Little-Known World of Caterpillars.” In it, she follows around David Wagner, an entomologist from the University of Connecticut.

While the whole thing is delightful and includes lots of mind-bending facts about caterpillars and insects like, “It is estimated that in one family of parasitic wasps, the Ichneumonidae, there are nearly a hundred thousand species, which is more than there are of vertebrates of all kinds.” But what really caught my eye—and imagination—was this bit about the role of insects as an energy transfer mechanism for nature:

Legions of other creatures, meanwhile, depend on insects for food. Insectivorous mammals include hedgehogs, shrews, and most species of bats. Just about all amphibians consume insects, as do many species of reptiles and freshwater fish. Lots of birds rely on insects, particularly during breeding season: before they fledge, a clutch of young chickadees will consume as many as six thousand caterpillars. Collectively, insects transfer more energy from plants to animals than any other group. They are the solder that holds food chains together.

“They are the solder that holds food chains together,” is so good. This kind of article is what keeps me coming back to the New Yorker. I love taking a topic like insects—something we’ve all spent our lives living with—and turning it over and over until you get something that looks entirely different than what you’d seen prior. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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