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Making Butterflies: Preserving New England’s Caterpillars

Sam Jaffe: Caterpillar Preserver
(Click an image to start a slideshow)

Thousands of people walk along the Blue Hills’ gravel paths every summer. They take in the skyline view of greater Boston, which is magnificent. They walk beneath the green and gold sun-dappled canopy of scrub oak and cherry, which is beautiful. They huff and puff up the steep rocky inclines, which is a workout. But none of them see what Sam Jaffe sees.

“Let’s go see if we can find a red spotted purple mimic with antlers,” Jaffe said as soon as he stepped out of his car into one of the park’s parking lots.

A what?

Turns out, it’s a caterpillar.

Jaffe is tall and willowy. His piercing blue eyes always seem as if they’re gazing over your shoulder, or just past your knees into the shrubs behind you. Jaffe studied biology at Brown University, but he’s not a professional naturalist now. He’s something even more wonderful: the impassioned amateur, who, for whatever reason, can’t fathom doing anything else.

“I don’t know quite why caterpillars,” Jaffe said. “When I was 3 or 4, we brought into the house the first batch of probably gypsy moths and cabbage whites, probably things that people wouldn’t want around. My dad helped explain the science of it all and we did little experiments. We had black swallowtail caterpillars on different colored surfaces and they’d match their chrysalises to the surfaces. So that was pretty cool. That got my interest in the biology of it going.”

Jaffe waded into the underbrush and gets down on his hands and knees to peer beneath leaves.

“When you do this, turning lots of leaves like this, you start seeing things you’d never see otherwise,” Jaffe explained.

I felt like I was walking the Blue Hills with a man born a century or two too late. He’s like a young E.O. Wilson, sitting in the dirt divining the secrets of ant society. Or, John Muir, examining square inches of moss in the shadow of giant redwoods. It is very easy to imagine Sam Jaffe aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, collecting samples with Charles Darwin in the Galapagos.

“Certain things, like spraying for mosquitoes, in the city really hurt me.”
– Sam Jaffe, amateur naturalist

“The old fashioned natural history attitude is what I really enjoy,” Jaffe said. “And my photography is trying to recapture sort of the natural history art and way of sharing.”

Jaffe’s macro-photographs of New England’s caterpillars are amazing. You can see fantastical creatures with what look like horns and feathers, caterpillars shining in bright green, gold and blue, caterpillars with mimicry powers so awesome, they look exactly like dried, rolled up oak leaves.

The way the paintings of John James Audobon celebrated birds. That’s what Sam Jaffe’s photographs do for caterpillars.

So, here’s the thing: Butterflies and the big, showy moths are beautiful. They charm us with their gossamer elegance. Naturally, we want to preserve them. But caterpillars? The things that butterflies and moths come from? Well, except for the cute, fuzzy ones, on first pass it’s hard to suppress the ick factor. They’re wormy. Creepy. Crawly. Part of the weird insect world.

Take, for example, the tale of the zombie caterpillar.

“When you collect wild caterpillars, they often come with parasites inside. One we had this year was a parasitoid wasp. It emerges out of the caterpillar as a larva spins a cocoon,” Jaffe said. “But before it does that, it alters the caterpillar’s behavior in someway so that the caterpillar is still alive, but doomed, but is resting on top of the parasite’s coccoon, and guarding it fiercely … So the wasp reprograms the caterpillar to do its bidding.”

Really?

“You get a lot of that kind of bizarre stuff when you spend a lot of time with caterpillars,” Jaffe said.

Who needs movies when you have real life?

“It’s right out of ‘Aliens,’ really,” Jaffe said.

Which is why Jaffe believes New England’s thousands of native caterpillar species are worth preserving. He says they tell us much more about the regional ecosystem than we can imagine.

Caterpillars are also a powerful barometer to measure the pressure we humans are putting on the nature. They eat plants and other animals eat them. Remove such bridge species from ecosystem and you’ve created a disruption both up and down the environmental web.

“Certain things, like spraying for mosquitoes, in the city really hurt me,” Jaffe said. “It’s devastating for me because no one realizes that when they come down the street spraying, even though it’s not going to hurt your dog or cat, it’s sterilizing the trees of insects. They have violent seizures and they fall out of the trees. It’s very hard to rally your neighborhood to say no more mosquito spraying, but it does devastate our native insects and it does effect our environment.”

Jaffe has become something of a proselytizer for caterpillar preservation. He has taken his message to Boston’s Children’s Museum, where he gives live shows of some of Massachusetts’ more charismatic caterpillars.

Just before heading back to the car, Jaffe found a beautiful red spotted purple caterpillar. He pulls off the small twig on which he found it, to take a closer a look.

“Overall, we should leave nature how we found it,” Jaffe said. “But unless we have the next generation falling in love with it, then we’re lost. And this is a good way to help with that.”

Guest:

  • Sam Jaffe, amateur naturalist, photographer with more images at his website.

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