HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND: Attack of the Carnivorous Caterpillar

Here on the Big Island – Attack of the Carnivorous Caterpillar

          Wait – that’s not a horror-movie.  But it was filmed on the Big Island.

          The carnivorous caterpillar is the common name of a singular creature that most certainly does attack its prey.  And where was it first found?  Why, right here of course!

          The early Hawaiians must have overlooked it, for there was no known Hawaiian name for it, nor was it mentioned in chants or myths.  But it’s not easy to spot.  It’s small, dull green and brown, like a little twig; it keeps very still when larger creatures are around; and it metamorphoses into an equally un-glamorous moth.

           People have studied caterpillars for millennia, and the silkworm has long been domesticated.  But until this member of the Eupithecia family was seen in action, in the 1960s, caterpillars were considered to be vegetarian.  Other Eupithecia caterpillars, elsewhere, eat only flowers and fruit.  In Hawaii, they eat fruit-flies.

          Subsequent field-studies around the world have now identified carnivorous members of other caterpillar species.  So entomologists assume that each evolved from a plant-eater in a local, relatively isolated habitat, where there was an open ecological niche for a small insectivore.

          At first sight, you’d think it was an inchworm.  It advances along a branch by humping up in the middle and hoisting its back end forward.  But when it does, you can see that it has legs only near each end, not all along the sides.  When it senses prey, it clutches the branch with its rear legs, lifts its head, and snatches the passing insect with its forelegs and jaws.
What happens next is rather like a man eating corn on the cob . . . .

          Here are two links for video of this remarkable Big Island resident.

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