After going through what is probably the rainiest year in my adult life, summer finally arrived for 2015. For those still confused when summer arrives in the Philippines, I personally keep an eye out for three signs.
The first is graduation, where thousands, if not millions, of students get the signal to transition into the workforce. The second is Easter Sunday, which is typically accompanied by the extremely bright sunlight and rather dry weather. And the third sign will be the proliferation of butterflies, dragonflies, bumble bees, and other winged insects.
Well, the first and second signs have already come and gone. And based on what I'm seeing in our garden, the third one appears to be in full swing as dragonflies and bumble bees have been buzzing about. Several butterflies have also began to make an appearance, with a few caterpillar hold-outs trying to catch up to their early bird counterparts.
So while my wife was making the finishing touches to the packs we would be distributing to participants of the Good Friday Procession, I decided to make myself useful by pulling out my camera, attaching the Macro lens, and mounting them on a tripod.
[Okay, so maybe the word "useful" is a bit of a stretch.]
While I was rewarded with a couple of hairy Mango leaf-eating caterpillars, they won't exactly be winning any beauty awards because they looked icky.
[Still, when did that ever stop me?]
But before we get to the icky pictures and yucky video, it is time to pause for a short background on the caterpillar.
One of the few complicated things that kids learn in school involves the life cycle of butterflies. Starting out as an egg under a leaf, they hatch into a walking larvae, then they turn into a pupa by spinning a chrysalis around themselves before they undergo a metamorphosis to turn into a butterfly.
In the Philippines, butterflies typically make their appearance in the summer. And while many people point to the observation of more flowers blossoming during this period, another reason may be that butterflies are given a respite from the rain.
Imagine being a butterfly in one of the Philippines' more powerful typhoons. With large delicate wings, butterflies will most likely get ripped apart with the heavy wind or rain.
A caterpillar, which is basically a larva, is a much hardier form than the delicate butterfly. With strong legs attached to meaty, elongated bodies, they can secure themselves to a tree trunk or branch to keep from being blown away.
[You'd be surprised at the amount of force needed to pull them off.]
And when that light drizzle turns into a torrential downpour, they are more than capable of taking shelter under leaves so they don't get pelted to death.
[It is possible that the spines on some hairy varieties help deflect the lighter water droplets.]
Fossils of butterflies have been found to be as old as 130 million years. And since caterpillars are presumed to have been part of their life cycle, this makes them almost three times as old as the Tarsier.
While finding fossilized dinosaurs isn’t easy, finding caterpillars is even harder. The problem is the head and jaws are the only hard parts. Being soft, the body is more likely to end up eaten or to decompose over time.
Butterflies, by contrast, have an exoskeleton, or an outer body shell. So while the soft internal parts may wither away over time, the exterior can be preserved if the creature becomes enveloped in tree sap. Millions of years later, this tree sap will have hardened into amber and once polished, the preserved butterfly may still be around for scientists and students to marvel at.
Mother Nature is quite imaginative, which means that there will be beautiful and hideous looking caterpillars.
Some of the better looking ones come in different colors, like bright greens, yellows, and maybe even blues. While the less attractive ones come in drab browns and blacks.
[Unfortunately, I ended up getting a picture of the latter ones.]
Surprisingly, caterpillars are said to have six true legs. These tend to look like menacing sickles at the front part of the creature and are the only ones that make it to the butterfly stage.
The legs found in the middle or rear of a caterpillar are called prolegs and can be as many as ten. They are divided into two sets – abdominal prolegs, which are found towards the middle of the caterpillar. While a pair of anal prolegs will be found at the end of the creature.
These are the ones that tend to do the sticking. So if you find caterpillars extending their necks out, they will most likely be anchored to a branch via their prolegs.
Still on the topic of legs, caterpillars tend to move from back to front, kind of like that drunk uncle at the wedding reception doing a porpoise-like crawl on the dance floor. This movement is most likely because it is the prolegs that does the gripping.
Incidentally, with so many legs, it might also be interesting to note that caterpillars can have as many as 4,000 muscles in their tiny bodies. With so much protein packed in such a small package, it is no wonder why predators find them to be a delicacy.
As mentioned earlier, the hardest part of the caterpillar is the head and jaws. Being perpetual eating machines, their main purpose is to feast on leaves. And since a fresh leaf can be quite strong, caterpillars need extremely sharp and hard mandibles to cut them into bite-sized portions.
Finally, caterpillars can have as many as twelve eyes. Yes, you heard that right, a dozen tiny eyes are located on their heads, more than the eight eyes found on spiders.
But unlike a dragonfly, praying mantis, or fly, or spider, these eyes don’t provide sharp vision. Instead, they are used to detect light and shadow. This poor vision would most likely account for why caterpillars end up inching along one’s driveway instead of up a nearby tree.
Caterpillars have had millions of years to develop some of the most interesting defenses possible. Some are able to spit out poison from glands; a few spin silk that acts like a web; while others actually absorb the toxins of the plants they eat, making them poisonous to eat.
There are even some caterpillars that have developed a symbiotic relationship with ants. By feeding members of a colony with something sweet, ants have been persuaded to protect certain species.
Perhaps the most common defense that kids all over the world encounter are the venomous spines surrounding caterpillar bodies. Just one touch can make skin swell and hurt for days.
The problem is that one doesn’t always need to touch a caterpillar to be affected by its spines. Apart from the proliferation of pollen, summer also has the discourtesy of including caterpillar spines in the wind.
This tends to happen after caterpillars undergo the metamorphosis into butterflies. Since the spines are left behind after their transformation, they are sometimes carried by the summer wind.
Each species of caterpillar tends to prefer a certain type of leaf. In most cases, that same tree or bush will have the kind of flower it will patronize as a Butterfly. So after being eaten, in one stage the tree benefits in another stage through pollination.
[It's one of nature's eternal Love-Hate relationships.]
The caterpillar I stumbled upon was of the brown variety. Judging from the way it was furiously munching on a mango leaf, I am assuming it may be the same variety that pollinates its flowers in the summer.
In the case of the video I captured, this particular caterpillar chewed on the leaf like some people do with corn-on-the-cob, which is from side-to-side. And if you could hear it, the sound of the mouthparts cutting and chewing can be rather frightening.
Just like the ugly duckling that grows up to be a beautiful swan, caterpillars grow up to be delicate Butterflies. From hideous, hairy crawling animals, they turn into winged creatures sporting a kaleidoscope of colors.
So the next time you see an ugly-looking caterpillar, think twice about squashing it. Apart from splattering its venomous spines all over the place, your reconsideration just might benefit with fruits a few weeks later.