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Mexican Wild Cats

One way to locate caterpillars is by looking for leaf damage like this one.
Tools of the Trade

Look closely at any one of our team during the day and you are sure to see a plastic bag sticking out from somewhere. These bags and a good set of eyes were our most important collecting tools. I'm not sure I will ever walk by a plant now without noticing if it has holes in its leaves! Grant and Lee were able to spot caterpillars and their signs with casual glances along the edges of the paths as we walked. For the most part, however, finding caterpillars was a matter of patience. I had to scrutinize each and every leaf .

Insect damage was a big clue as to where to look. I was surprised at just how many of the leaves were full of holes or chewed back to their main veins. Other clues were folded shelters or rolled up leaves. Some of the shelter builders were quite clean and you opened up the leaf to find a single green caterpillar curled inside. Others were gregarious (meaning they lived in small groups). Some of these weren't such wonderful housekeepers. When you opened up one of their shelters you were likely to find not only the caterpillars but a pile of their frass as well! Some caterpillars were "droppers" — as soon as they perceived a threat they would drop from their leaf to escape — a situation that sent us down to the ground to relocate our escapee. Good eyes were essential to avoid painful stings, a lesson learned early on by Sarah, one of our team volunteers. So intent was she at looking under the leaf for caterpillars that she didn't see the "bala" ant sitting on top until it bit her!

Collecting caterpillars with a delicate tool you can find in your own home.

Each pair of caterpillar hunters was outfitted with a simple collecting kit. This consisted of a large Ziploc bag with clippers, forceps, a small paintbrush, marker and pen, flagging tape and the all-important data labels. Plus, everyone carried empty plastic bags tucked into pockets and hanging off backpacks for our finds. This is easy equipment to put together and I am already planning some collecting expeditions for my students at home

Photos courtesy of Shauneen Giudice/Earthwatch Institute