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From childhood fascination with colorful, fuzzy bugs to the first definitive book on caterpillars

Papilio indra L5
Papilio indra L5

By Scott Weybright, College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

Once upon a time, an eight-year-old boy found a fuzzy caterpillar in his backyard in England. He decided to put it in a jar, feed it and watch it grow. So entranced by the metamorphosis of that caterpillar into a butterfly, he did it again. And again. He became an expert in rearing caterpillars.

“I was hooked,” said David James, an entomologist at Washington State University. “Raising caterpillars got me interested in science, and I knew I wanted to be an entomologist. It’s near and dear to my heart, and set me on a very productive, useful career and life.”

Now, he’s written the definitive book on caterpillars, if you will: The Book of Caterpillars: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World. Made for the general public, the book is full of beautiful, full-color, life-size photos of 600 caterpillars, equally divided between moths and butterflies. From well-known species like Monarchs to newly discovered species that look like small alien invaders, readers will encounter a near-comprehensive collection of critters.

“People generally may know the wooly bear caterpillar, but they haven’t seen the weird and wonderful creatures in this book,” James said. “Their diversity is astounding. And it’s important to have a world-wide collection that people can look through and learn from.”

Caterpillars, and the adults they become, play an important role in the environment. As mentioned in the book, caterpillars are an important source of protein for millions of people around the world. Also, the silk moth caterpillar led to the production of silk, forever changing the textile industry.

“We try to draw all those positives together and point out things people may not know,” James said. “They’re great at mimicry, for instance. And Monarch caterpillars don’t taste good to predators, so other species have evolved to resemble Monarchs to fool those same predators.”

Many of the species included in the book had never been photographed before, and scientists have never really studied the diversity of caterpillars. With advances in digital photography, this book became possible, James said.

Access to learning is important for James. After all, he’s been doing it since he was a boy just discovering the magic of watching caterpillars make their way in the world.

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