Featured Creature Friday: The Wonderful Woolly Bear Caterpillar

I’m not really an entomology sort of person. It’s partly because insects are often creepy and partly because I’m just not good enough at spotting them to foster an interest. It’s the same reason I’ll never take up birdwatching: when your eyesight is bad enough that it takes you five minutes to spot a full-grown eagle, it might be time to consider an interest in elephants, instead.

I am generally a fan of caterpillars, though. For one thing, they’re often incredibly cute in a bizarre and alien sort of way, and like the butterflies and moths they become, caterpillars come in a truly staggering array of colors and configurations. Some of them look like tiny cacti and some have horns and some are poisonous and some will burn you with acid and I’m sure that deep down, some of them just want to be loved.

But we’re here to talk about a particularly magnificent specimen in the form of the Woolly Bear Caterpillar, which is particularly extraordinary because it has considerably lengthened its lifespan through cunning use of cryogenic technology.

I've named this one "Fry." It was only trying to deliver a pizza...
photo by IronChris, by way of Wikimedia Commons and used here under Creative Commons license.

Compared to some other caterpillars, the Woolly Bear might not be much to look at — it’s sort of like a multicolored scrub brush — but it’s anything but mediocre. Where most species of caterpillar live only a few weeks, the Woolly Bear has adapted to cold climates by simply freezing solid when the temperature drops, which has extended this little Lepidoptera’s lifespan considerably. In warmer climates they’ll live a few years; in the arctic, their badassery extends to fourteen years or more. Every winter they freeze, every summer they thaw, eat, and grow bigger, until they finally become moths, live just long enough to reproduce, and then die. It’s a bit of an anti-climax, but who knows, maybe being a moth sucks.

As you all know, I’m a sucker for scientists getting all excited about nerdy things — they’re like teenage girls at a Bieber concert — so here’s a fantastic video from the new series Frozen Planet with a lovely gentleman and his lovely accent telling you all about the Woolly Bear and how completely awesome it is.

But wait, there’s more! Woolly Bear Caterpillars were also the first insects shown to self-medicate to stop parasitic infestation. Woolly Bears are plagued by a type of parasitic fly which is kind enough to leave a gift of larvae inside the poor caterpillar; when the little bastards hatch, they eat the caterpillar from the inside and then bust right out of there like they think they’re extras in Alien. But infected Woolly Bears can fight back by eating alkaloid-laden plants.

Bernays and her colleagues showed that infected woolly bears eat more toxic alkaloids than their non-infected peers. Healthy woolly bears also ingest alkaloids, but only in small amounts, apparently to make themselves unsavory to predators.

In addition, the team showed that parasite-free woolly bears that binge on alkaloids are more likely to die compared with woolly bears that take the drug in moderation.source National Geographic

So not only have they figured out how to treat their own medical problems in a totally groovy holistic fashion, but they’re also better at moderation with their alkaloids than I am with chocolate. Thanks a lot, Woolly Bear caterpillars. Now I feel like crap about myself. Which is probably how you’re going to feel when you finally turn from a bad-ass caterpillar into a completely boring moth. CHECKMATE.

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3 thoughts on “Featured Creature Friday: The Wonderful Woolly Bear Caterpillar

  1. “…but who knows, maybe being a moth sucks.” This made me snort coffee! I’ll bet moths are envious as hell of butterflies! Your Friday “Creature Feature” is always my favorite. :)

  2. Excellent post! I must say though that I have known for years that it’s best to only ingest toxic alkaloids in moderation.

  3. Pingback: Bright Strange Things | All of Life’s Pressing Questions, Direct From the Internet

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