The caterpillar stage of a butterfly’s life is as interesting–sometimes moreso–than that final phase, when it unfolds its wings and takes first flight. To witness eclosion, the moment when the chrysalis becomes a butterfly, is without a doubt magical.
But just as endearing is watching caterpillars move, wobbling, crawling, and creeping on flowers turning their expressive filaments and twisting torsos like trapeze artists at Cirque de Soleil.
Given that caterpillars have no bones in their entire bodies, not even the crisp ektoskeletons of insects like roaches or beetles, it’s hard not to ponder: how, exactly, do caterpillars move?
Turns out they go with their gut. Literally. A groundbreaking study conducted last year in which scientists have the intriguing critters walking on treadmills while x-rays scanned their wormy bodies indicated that the first step in a caterpillar’s stroll is taken by its gut.
Scientists observing the Manduca sexta, or tobacco hornworm caterpillar via X-ray learned that when caterpillars walk, their guts move first, with the rest of their bodies following behind in a rippling motion. Think of one of those wave perpetual motion machines.
A caterpillar “can burrow, it can climb, it can navigate through complex terrain,” said biologist Barry Trimmer and his team at Tufts University, who are fashioning soft bodied robots designed after the Tobacco Hornworm.
Caterpillars are everywhere right now with the warm, wet winter. Just look under leaves and in lush growth and you’re likely to find one. When you do, check out those moves, you’ll be amazed and delighted.Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.