last updated June 4th, 2005 and is permanently morphing...
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1. The wormlike, often brightly colored, hairy or spiny larva of a Butterfly or moth.
2. Any of various insect
larvae similar to those of the butterfly or moth.
[Middle English catirpel, catirpeller, probably alteration of Old North French *catepelose : cate, cat (from Latin cattus) + pelose, hairy (from Latin pilosus). ]
Word History: It seems that the larvae of moths and butterflies are popularly seen as resembling other, larger animals. Consider the Italian dialect word gatta, "cat, caterpillar"; the German dialect term tüfelskatz, "caterpillar" (literally "devil's cat"); the French word chenille, "caterpillar" (from a Vulgar Latin diminutive, canģcula, of canis, "dog"); and last but not least, our own word caterpillar, which appears probably to have come through Northern French from the Old French term chatepelose, meaning literally "hairy cat." Our word caterpillar is first recorded in English in 1440 in the form catyrpel. Catyr, the first part of catyrpel, may indicate the existence of an English word cater, meaning "tomcat," otherwise attested only in caterwaul. Cater would be cognate with Middle High German kater and Dutch kater. The latter part of catyrpel seems to have become associated with the word piller, "plunderer." By giving the variant spelling -ar, Johnson's Dictionary set the spelling caterpillar with which we are familiar today.
"Who are 'you'?" said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I - I hardly know, Sir, just at present - at least I know who I 'was' when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."
"What do you mean by that?" said the Caterpillar, sternly. "Explain yourself!"
"I can't explain 'myself', I'm afraid, Sir," said Alice, "because I'm not myself, you see."
"I don't see," said the Caterpillar.
"I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly," Alice replied, very politely, "for I can't understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing."
"It isn't," said the Caterpillar.
"Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice; "but when you have to turn into a chrysalis - you will some day, you know - and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?"
"Not a bit," said the Caterpillar.
"Well, perhaps 'your' feelings may be different," said Alice: "all I know is, it would feel very queer to 'me'"
"You!" said the Caterpillar contemptuously. "Who are 'you'?"
The singing caterpillars are not particularly tuneful. They really generate a vibration that is transmitted through the material they are resting on. You and I cannot hear caterpillar songs, but some ants can, and they are attracted to these insect sirens.
The singing caterpillars belong to the Lycaenidae, which include such butterflies as the hairstreaks and blues. It is not only the singing or vibrating of this group of caterpillars that makes them remarkable, it is the complexity of their symbiotic relationships with several species of ants and a plant. Since both the ants and the caterpillars favor the Croton plant, they could well meet by chance, but the caterpillars' singing serves to accelerate contact. Once met on the Croton plant, a fascinating triangle is completed.
Player 1. The Croton plant provides nourishment to the caterpillars through both its leaves and specially evolved nectaries (nectar-producing organs), but receives nothing in return. The ants also dote on the nectaries, but they at least protect the plant from all herbivorous insects except the singing caterpillars.
Player 2. The ants get food from both the Croton plant and the caterpillars. The latter have evolved extrudable glands called "nectary organs." For their part of the bargain, the ants protect the caterpillar from predatory wasps, just as they defend the Croton plant from its enemies.
Player 3. The caterpillars, though seemingly benign, are the heavies in this menage-a-trois. They get both leaves and nectar from the plant for nothing. They do supply the ants with nectar in exchange for protection, but subtle subversion prevails here! First they attract the ants with their songs; then, they seduce them with nectar that is much more nutritious and attractive than that produced by the Croton plant. Finally, they chemically force the ants into defensive postures against predatory wasps by spraying them with a mesmerizing substance from special "tentacle organs" near their heads.
Why is all this subversive on the part of the caterpillars? It appears that the caterpillars have invaded and undermined the normal ant-plant symbiosis--- a very common, mutually beneficial arrangement. The ants have been seduced into letting the caterpillars feast on the Croton plant, although the ant-plant compact originally required that the ants repel all herbivorous insects. What makes this tale of subterfuge so remarkable is that the caterpillars had to evolve three separate organs in order to accomplish it: (1) their vibratory papillae; (2) their nectary glands; and (3) their mesmerizing tentacle organs.
(DeVries, Philip J.; "Singing Caterpillars, Ants and Symbiosis," Scientific American, 267:76, October 1992.)
"There was a large mushroom growing near her, about the same height as herself; and, when she had looked under it, and on both sides of it, and behind it, it occurred to her that she might as well look and see what was on top of it. She stretched herself up on tiptoe,and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar, that was sitting on the top, with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else."
- Lewis Carroll - _Alice's Adventures In Wonderland_
We are now, there can be no doubt, in the final historical seconds of that crisis - a crisis that involves the end of history, our departure from the planet, the triumph over death, and the release of the individual from the body. We are, in fact, closing distance with the most profound event a planetary ecology can encounter - the freeing of life from the dark chrysalis of matter.
The old metaphor of psyche as the caterpillar transformed by metamorphosis is a specieswide analogy. We must undergo a metamorphosis in order to survive the momentum of the historical forces already set in motion.
- Terence McKenna - _New Maps Of Hyperspace_
A caterpillar is the larval form of a lepidopteran (a member of the insect order comprising butterflies and moths).
Caterpillars have long segmented bodies and many sets of "legs". They eat leaves voraciously, grow rapidly, shed their skins generally four or five times, and eventually pupate into an adult form.
Caterpillars have six true legs (being hexapods) on the thorax and eight prolegs on the abdomen. The sawfly larva (Hymenoptera) resembles a caterpillar, but they can be distinguished because the caterpillar has a gap between true legs and prolegs, whereas the sawfly does not.
Caterpillars do not breathe through their mouths. Air enters their bodies through a series of small tubules along the sides of their thorax and abdomen. These tubules are called 'spiracles', and inside the body they connect together into a network of airtubes or 'tracheae'.
Caterpillars do not have very good eyesight or senses. Rather than having fully-developed eyes they have a series of six tiny eyelets or 'ocelli' on the lower portion of their head. They rely on their antennae to help them locate food.
Many species of birds and animals consider caterpillars to be a tasty protein snack, so the caterpillars have evolved several methods of protecting and/or camouflaging themselves. These methods can be either passive, aggressive, or both. Some caterpillars have large 'false eyes' towards the rear of their abdomen. This is an attempt to convince predators that their back is actually their front, giving them an opportunity to escape to the 'rear' when attacked. Others have a body coloration that closely resembles their food plant.
More aggressive self-defence measures are taken by the spitfires and hairy caterpillars. These caterpillars have spiny bristles or long fine hairs that will irritate anything that brushes against them, or spit acidic digestive juices at potential enemies. However, some birds, like cuckoos, will swallow the hairiest of caterpillars.
A final grouping of caterpillars eat the leaves of plants that are toxic to other animals. They are unaffected by the poison themselves, but it builds up in their system, making them highly toxic to anything that eats one of them. These toxic species, such as Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae) caterpillars, are brightly striped or coloured in red and yellow - the 'danger' colours.
The aim of all these aggressive defense measures is to assure that any predator that eats (or tries to eat) one of them won't be in a hurry to repeat the experience.
Some caterpillars are serious pests of agriculture or forestry. The include the Small White butterfly (brassicas), the Pine Butterfly, and the Codling Moth (apples).
Literature and art
* Children's stories
o Pipe-smoking caterpillar: Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
o The Very Hungry Caterpillar, 1969, Eric Carle.
* Popular song
o Inch worm by Frank Loesser, (from the motion picture Hans Christian Anderson)
* Caterpillar tracks on tanks, earth movers and the like, are named after the caterpillar because of the segmentation and flexibility.