In search of the …caterpillar

The full life cycle of South Africa’s more than 10 000 species of Lepidoptera remains mysterious, even in the age of Google. Citizen scientists have a big role to play, writes  Justin Bode.

Example of Caterpillar Rearing Group record

It may surprise you to learn that we still know so little about how our large numbers of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) despite our expectation that the answers to all questions can be found on the Internet. The truth of it is that our knowledge of the life cycle of our lepidoptera remains largely incomplete, leaving a gap that amateur lepidopterists are busy trying to fill.

The challenge is that the world of Lepidoptera does not only consist of the flying adult moths and butterflies that we see on a daily basis. These flying wonders have gone through the magical process of metamorphosis, having transformed from crawling, hungry caterpillars to the flying adult moths or butterflies we know so well. The secret lives of caterpillars may well be more fascinating than the adults they transform into. Our current knowledge has yet to scrape the surface of this world, but the small glimpses we have seen have sparked the interest of lepidopterists far and wide.

Tens of thousands of moth species and about 4 000 butterfly species occur in Africa. No one person could ever determine the caterpillar-adult-host-plant associations for all these species. A few of these associations have been uncovered but the amount still to be discovered is staggering.

In 2012, a survey of South Africa’s Lepidoptera revealed that we had information only for 7% of our species (Staude & Kroon, 2012). One of the authors of this survey, Hermann Staude, the pre-eminent moth expert in South Africa and world-renowned Geometrid expert, decided something had to be done. He launched The Great Moth Caterpillar Hunt in 2012. This later was named the Caterpillar Rearing Group (CRG). Members of the public were encouraged to rear caterpillars and photograph at least the final instar caterpillar and the adult butterfly or moth. To say that the project has been a success is an understatement.

The first CRG publication in 2016 reported on 1 778 rearings, comprising 962 species of Afrotropical Lepidoptera (Staude et al., 2016a, 2016b). The second CRG publication reported on another 458 rearings comprising 424 taxa of Afrotropical Papilionoidea (Congdon et al., 2017). The most recent publication reported on a further 2 370 rearings, comprising 953 species of Afrotropical Lepidoptera and adding an additional 641 species to the total number reared, thus bringing the total of Lepidoptera represented in the CRG master lists to 2 027 species.

Anyone who is willing to look after a caterpillar and rear it through to adulthood is welcome to join and help discover the life histories of more species. Together we can solve the many unknowns in the life histories of these fascinating creatures.

CRG Master List

Sources

Congdon, T.C.E., Bampton, I. & Collins, S.C. 2017. “An illustrated report on the larvae, adults and host associations of 424 African Lepidoptera taxa belonging to the Papilionoidea. A second report of the Caterpillar Rearing Group of LepSoc Africa.” Metamorphosis 28: 57–150.

Staude, H.S. & Kroon, D.M. 2012, “The Great Caterpillar Moth Hunt Challenge”, Newsletter of the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa. Downloadable from http://www.lepsoc.org.za/oldsite/index.php?option=com_acymailing&ctrl=archive&task=view&listid=1-mailing_list&mailid=107-moth-challange

Staude, H.S., MacLean, M., Mecenero, S., Pretorius, R.J., Oberprieler, R.G., Van Noort, S., Sharp, A., Sharp, I., Balona, J., Bradley, S., Brink, M., Morton, A.S., Botha, M.J., Collins, S.C., Grobler, Q., Edge, D.A., Williams, M.C. & Sihvonen, P. (2020). “An overview of Lepidoptera-host-parasitoid associations for southern Africa, including an illustrated report on 2 370 African Lepidoptera-host and 119 parasitoid-Lepidoptera associations”, Metamorphosis 31(3): 1–380.

Staude, H.S., Mecenero, S., Oberprieler, R., Sharp, A., Sharp, I., Williams, M.C. & MacLean, M. 2016a. “An illustrated report on the larvae and adults of 962 African Lepidoptera species. Results of the Caterpillar Rearing Group: a novel, collaborative method of rearing and recording lepidopteran life-histories.” Metamorphosis 27: 46–59.

Staude, H.S., Mecenero, S., Oberprieler, R., Sharp, A., Sharp, I., Williams, M.C. & MacLean, M. 2016b. “Supplementary material to: An illustrated report on the larvae and adults of 962 African Lepidoptera species. Results of the Caterpillar Rearing Group: a novel, collaborative method of rearing and recording Lepidopteran life-histories”. Metamorphosis 27 Supplement: S1–S330

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