Keene's Caterpillar Lab Offers A Look At Miniature Marvels

Head to the Monadnock Region to learn about some of nature's most fascinating creatures



Great Ash Sphinx (Sphinx chersis)

Funny, delightful, surprising, charismatic. Even friendly. That’s how Sam Jaffe describes caterpillars. They’re not the words most people would use — scary and yucky are more likely. But Jaffe is not most people. “I’ve always been passionate about caterpillars,” he says. “I’m sort of an oddball in that way.”

Oddball, yes, but spend some time with him and chances are you’ll become a caterpillar-loving oddball too.

He’ll tell you that caterpillars — which, of course, turn into butterflies or moths — reveal a wondrous world that few people know exists, though it’s right there in their backyard. Slow down, he says; take a closer look.

What you’ll see at first are pretty basic creatures, carrying out the most elemental tasks of living. “They eat, poop and survive,” Jaffe says. But the last of those tasks — survival — is anything but simple.

Abbott’s Sphinx (Sphecodina abbottii)

Defending against predators that see caterpillars as quite tasty requires an elaborate game plan. And caterpillars have it, big time. “They’ve taken defense mechanisms to a new level,” says Jaffe, who has observed caterpillars throughout his life, starting as a 4-year-old budding naturalist, then as a student of science and now as proprietor of The Caterpillar Lab, a nonprofit, in Keene.

Some of the ways that New Hampshire’s caterpillars (there are thousands of species here) defend themselves are jaw-dropping. Many have what Jaffe calls “big, goofy, false eyes” that are displayed to scare off a predator. Others mimic a snake, hissing or inflating red horns that look like a snake’s tongue.

Yet others are covered in bright “warning” colors that say to a predator, as Jaffe puts it, “better not try me because it’s so obvious I’m probably full of toxins.” Ditto for other species that smell bad; one has “noxious halitosis.” Another vomits and throws it at the predator. Some sting.  

And pity the predator that chomps on a hairy caterpillar. “The hairs of some caterpillars are hard to digest,” Jaffe says. “They coat the predator’s gut, making the caterpillar less attractive to eat the next time.” (One bird species, the yellow-billed cuckoo, has adapted to the impediment. They simply shed the lining of their stomach after a hairy meal.)

If they can’t scare off their predators, caterpillars have another tool: Hide.

One flower-eating species uses their sticky silk to attach petals of the flower they’re eating to their back. Another that eats serrated leaves has a serrated back. Another looks like folded leaves.

Perhaps the simplest adaptation matches a green caterpillar to a same-color-green plant, while the most complex and most amazing adaptation is twig mimcry. You can stand in front of a leafless branch, be told there are a dozen caterpillars on it, and not see a one.

That’s because twig mimics have incredible camouflage — same color, same shape, same leaf scars, same position on the branch as the actual twigs. They even have a bark-like exterior and sheared-off feet that look like a snapped-off twig. If they get found out, they can quickly spin a line of silk and hang by it until the predator, maybe a spider or stink bug, crawls past.

“These are the things that make us laugh, jump back, be surprised,” says Jaffe. “Whether it’s pretending to be a twig or pretending to be a snake, it’s this tiny thing taking us on, us highly intelligent beings who can never be fooled. That’s pretty cool.”

How do caterpillars create the camouflage that keeps them (mostly) safe? Jaffe answers this way: “If a caterpillar eats only from a certain plant, there’s pressure generation after generation to look like that plant. A species that eats blueberry leaves, say, will begin to resemble blueberry bark over time because the ones that didn’t were eaten by birds and never had a chance to grow up and breed. Some caterpillars can also change how they look within a single lifetime. There are different chemicals in foods and different environmental cues that, as the caterpillar is growing and experiencing those cues, are changing how its genes are expressed.”

All this — the adaptations and the defenses — creates caterpillars that look very Dr. Seuss-ish. One is said to look like a Scottish terrier with a green blanket over its back. Others look like deep sea creatures or aliens. But their fantastical façades are nothing compared to their story of metamorphosis.

Juvenile (caterpillar, also called larva). Teenager (pupa). Adult (butterfly or moth). Those are main stages of metamorphosis, but Jaffe says there are several other nuanced stages. Caterpillars, for instance, go through at least five stages of growth, for some species 12 or more stages, shedding their skin, getting bigger each time.

Once full-grown, the caterpillar sheds its last caterpillar skin and turns into a pupa, or chrysalis, where the transition to a butterfly or moth begins. Over a period of time, ranging from a few weeks to a few years, special cells replicate, while others break down, in order to create the new form.   

Lace-capped Caterpillar (Oligocentria lignicolor)

While caterpillars are mostly focused on eating, the butterfly or moth is all about reproducing. In their short life of one or two weeks, for some just days, they must quickly find a mate and then begin the search for the right plant to lay eggs on.

Few of nature’s creatures transform so astonishingly, with the juvenile and adult living in completely different worlds. And that’s really the point. As Jaffe says, that means there’s no competition for resources. The two worlds also allow the caterpillar to not worry about being attractive enough to find a mate; they can concentrate on survival and leave the mating to the beautiful butterfly.

Metamorphosis is not easy. In addition to the physiological changes that are required, the physical struggle for caterpillars shedding their skin is immense. For butterflies and moths emerging from the pupa, the struggle is even greater.

That struggle is just one reason why metamorphosis has become such a powerful cultural symbol. Jaffe says people who see it happen often relate it to challenges and changes in their own lives, whether physical or emotional, and that people with illnesses sometimes see it as a new, hopeful form that was created by the body. “Others are amazed at the ability of evolution through natural selection to meet the challenges faced by these creatures,” he adds. “Others say it reveals the glorious kingdom of God.”

However people see it, Jaffe is happy. He just wants people to see it.

He started his quest in 2008, when he began photographing the caterpillars that he been studying since he brought one home from day care (see sidebar, p. 64). His photos were good enough for gallery exhibitions. At the openings, he would supply wine, cheese and live caterpillars. “People would be immediately drawn to them, full of questions,” he says. “That started the whole idea that I could share some of the knowledge that I had built up and share some of the experiences I had had. Eventually, the gallery openings turned into live caterpillar shows, and it just went crazy from there.”

Crazy like six day-long caterpillar programs at the Boston Children’s Museum in 2011. Two years later, while he was studying at Antioch University in Keene, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a summer of caterpillar educational programs. The BBC got interested and filmed his work.

Jaffe was encouraged enough to team up with two of his fellow Antioch students — Monica Foley and Jesse Varga — to raise caterpillars and educate people about their charms. He rented space in Keene, called it The Caterpillar Lab, and set out to bring the wonders of caterpillars to as many people as possible.

Foley, who says she’s always been a hardcore nature enthusiast, loved the idea of starting the Lab because “paying attention to anything as small as a caterpillar opens up a whole new way to look at the world. It’s amazing how many strange and beautiful things are revealed when you start to look closely.”

Though she still works at the Lab in the summer, Foley is now a full-time high school biology teacher. Of course, she has a ton of caterpillars in her classroom. “I use them as a talking point for many biological phenomena. The students become so invested in the caterpillars, it’s often the first thing they do when they get to class — check on the caterpillars.”

Jesse Varga didn’t know much about caterpillars when he started working with Jaffe and Foley, but he knew he was passionate about science education. Today he works full time as manager of The Caterpillar Lab, which has moved to a new, bigger space a few blocks off of Keene’s Main Street.

“We wanted to do a whole lot of caterpillar programs, do something every weekend, school programs, camp programs, museum programs,” Varga says. And so they did. It wasn’t long before their fascination with caterpillars was being shared with thousands of people — millions, if you count Facebook.

Jaffe says it is the videos they post that draw the most attention, particularly those that show the stages of metamorphosis: “They reach millions of people who share the videos and comment on them.”

Blackberry Looper (Chlorochlamys chloroleucaria)

The videos can also be seen at The Caterpillar Lab. But that’s just the start of what the Lab offers. That leafless branch with the twig mimics hiding on it is there. Display cases contain pupa and butterflies and moths that have emerged from them. A special microscope projects the activity of almost-invisible caterpillars onto a screen. A refrigerator is full of overwintering pupa. There are Pokémon-like trading cards, with caterpillars as the collectible characters.

“This is a crazy endeavor, one that’s been built out of stubbornness,” Jaffe says. Sparking interest in caterpillars is a worthy goal, he adds, but it “doesn’t necessarily make sense in the normal world of business.” Here’s why.

When the caterpillar growing season starts in April, the Lab’s staff of three and a few interns have to take care of — “wrangle,” as they call it — thousands of caterpillars. Feeding what are called “eating machines” is the main challenge.

“We go out every morning to do host plant collection, usually on roadsides or parking lot edges that don’t get mowed very often,” Jaffe says. “Everyone here gets to know plants, not just the species, but what is the most delicious kind of oak leaf.” Or black cherry, poplar, birch, sweet fern, blueberry and so on — caterpillars are picky, usually eating just a few kinds of leaf.

Another challenge — the off-site caterpillar shows require more work than most live animal shows. “When you do a show with an opossum,” Jaffe says, “you can put the opossum in a box, bring it to the show and feed it some kibble when you get home, and it will live for years.” Caterpillar shows, on the other hand, will have many different species in different stages of development — “big, little, hatchlings, cocoons, things shedding their skin, snake mimics ... we want to blow people away.”

Plus, unlike opossums, caterpillars have short lives (the big, showy cecropia moth caterpillar, for instance, is only big for a week before it begins to spin its cocoon), so what they call the “livestock” has to constantly be regenerated.

“Their rapid lives give us an opportunity to tell stories not just about how they change and grow, but have it play out in front of you,” Jaffe says, “but it also means there is no time when we can sit back and say, ‘We have what we need now, let’s take a breather.’”

To the caterpillar wranglers, it’s all worth it, and they look forward to what’s ahead — hopefully, Jaffe says, more programs, being open more hours, maybe launching a mobile lab. It’s just a question of money.

But Jaffe and the others at The Caterpillar Lab — now in the midst of its own metamorphosis — will continue to work hard while awaiting their butterfly stage.

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