caterpillar facts

11 Caterpillar Facts About The Colorful Crawlers

Caterpillars belong to Lepidoptera, one of the largest orders in the animal kingdom, with over 180,000 identified species worldwide. These fun caterpillar facts will discuss their voracious feeding and their unique defense strategies.

From the majestic Monarch Caterpillar, adorned with bold stripes and striking hues, to the Luna Moth Caterpillar, you'll learn that each species holds its unique charm and danger. Some species have venomous spines, while others can mimic a snake. Continue reading to learn more.

Want to know the life cycle of caterpillars? Let's embark on a journey of wonder as we explore their transformation into magnificent butterflies with our butterfly quotes and facts.

11 Facts About Caterpillars

caterpillar on branch
Photo by mirey2222 on Pixabay

1. Caterpillars are not separate species, but they are larvae of butterflies and moths.

Are caterpillars insects? The answer is yes, but they are an incomplete form of certain insects3. Caterpillars are the larval stage of 180,000 insects belonging to the order Lepidoptera, which includes butterflies and moths. Caterpillars develop to become their winged adult form.

Generally, caterpillars have a cylindrical body shape with a segmented structure. Each body segment typically bears a pair of legs. 

They live on every continent except Antarctica. Some countries known for their diverse caterpillar populations include the United States, Brazil, Australia, India, China, and African and European countries.

2. They have three pairs of true legs and multiple prolegs.

caterpillar on leaf
Photo by Lasclay on Unsplash

One interesting fact about caterpillars is that they have two types of legs: true legs and prolegs or false legs.

The true legs are the three pairs of jointed legs located on the Caterpillar's thoracic segments closest to its head. These legs are"true" because the Caterpillar retains them into adulthood when it transforms into a butterfly or moth. They use these legs to crawl and walk.

Additionally, on their abdomen, caterpillars possess several pairs of fleshy, unjointed prolegs adorned with tiny hooks called crochets. A caterpillar may have up to five pairs of prolegs, but the number can vary among species. These prolegs firmly grip surfaces as they move about while feeding or resting.

However, caterpillars shed these prolegs as it approaches pupation, developing structures needed for metamorphosis into chrysalides or pupae during their transition to adult butterfly or moth.

3. They spend most of their time eating.

Do you know that the primary goal of caterpillars is to eat as much as possible? As the larval form of butterflies and moths, their primary goal is to consume enough food to support their rapid growth and development before they undergo metamorphosis.

Most caterpillars eat leaves, stems, and other plant parts. They use their specialized mouthparts to chew and consume. Certain caterpillars can consume up to 27,000 times their weight. This continuous eating allows caterpillars to gain weight rapidly, sometimes increasing their body mass by thousands of times over a few weeks.

Furthermore, it prepares them for the subsequent transformation into pupae or chrysalides, during which they enter a non-feeding stage.

Proper nutrition during the caterpillar stage is crucial for healthy development. Well-fed caterpillars have a better chance of surviving and successfully transforming. While malnourished caterpillars may survive as adults, their reproductive ability might become underdeveloped, making it harder to continue the life cycle.

4. Some species prefer specific plants.

caterpillar hanging on leaf
Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

Different caterpillar species have evolved to feed on specific host plants1, a fact often reflected in their common names. For example, the Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar feeds exclusively on a milkweed plant5, while the Swallowtail Caterpillar consumes plants from the Apiaceae (carrot) family.

However, few caterpillar species have evolved to be carnivorous or omnivorous. These caterpillars have adaptations that allow them to eat insects or other small animals. Examples of carnivorous caterpillars include the Harvester Caterpillar, which feeds on aphids, a favorite of the ladybug, and the Lacewing Caterpillar, which preys on small insects.

Read more: Butterfly Species.

5. Woolly Bear Caterpillar is the oldest caterpillar species in the Arctic.

The Arctic Woolly Bear Moth, also known as the Woolly Bear Caterpillar, is well-adapted to survive in the icy conditions of the Arctic.

One of their most essential adaptations is their dense, insulating coat of long, soft hairs. These hairs give these moth caterpillars a "woolly" appearance and are very effective at insulating them from the cold.

Additionally, these hairy caterpillars employ a type of hibernation known as diapause to survive the winter months. Their blood contains antifreeze chemicals that keep them frozen for a long time. They spend 90% of their lives in this frozen state.

Although they only spend 5% of their time eating their favorite food, the Arctic Willow, they can survive for seven consecutive winters and live up to 13 years, making them the longest-lived caterpillar species.

The larvae use a particular type of cocoon called a hibernaculum to protect themselves. These cocoons shield them from the cold and protect them from parasitoids. When spring arrives, some woolly bears will emerge as adult moths wherever they live.

6. Caterpillars can sting.

caterpillar crawling on leaf
Photo by Bankim Desai on Unsplash

Next on our caterpillar facts is their stinging abilities. Stinging caterpillars, like the Puss Caterpillar, Io Moth Caterpillar, and Flannel Moth Caterpillar, possess specialized structures with venomous spines or irritating substances as a defensive adaptation. Found in various regions of North and South America, these caterpillars deliver painful stings when touched, deterring predators and potential threats.

Contact with the venomous spines can cause localized reactions, such as an intense burning sensation, swelling, and redness.

While the stings can be uncomfortable and lead to allergic reactions in some cases, they are generally not life-threatening for humans and subside over time without medical intervention.

However, it is best to avoid handling or touching caterpillars in the wild, especially if unsure of their identification, and exercise caution when exploring natural habitats where other caterpillars may reside.

7. They can mimic their surroundings to protect themselves.

Caterpillars are highly vulnerable to predators. They blend in with their surroundings through different colorations, patterns, and body structures.

One example of camouflage in caterpillars is in species like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) caterpillar. It resembles a snake, complete with false eyespots and a snake-like pattern along its body. This mimicry can startle and deter predators.

On the other hand, the White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) Caterpillar has a brown, mottled appearance that resembles bird droppings. Some caterpillars mimic twigs or branches to avoid detection. The Oak Hawk-moth (Marumba Quercus) Caterpillar is an excellent example. Its elongated body has colors and patterns resembling tree branches' bark.

Furthermore, some caterpillars can change their body color to match their surroundings. For instance, the Peppered Moth (Biston betularia) Caterpillar can alter its pigmentation to match the tree bark it feeds.

8. They have multiple eyes.

caterpillar close up view
Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

Did you know that caterpillars have a unique feature called "stemmata" or "ocelli" that function as simple eyes?

These light-sensitive cells differ from the compound eyes found in adult insects on the sides of the Caterpillar's head in pairs. The number of ocelli can vary from species to species, with most having six arranged in three pairs.

However, some caterpillars may have fewer or additional ocelli. Despite their small size, these ocelli play an essential role in helping caterpillars detect changes in light intensity and navigate their environment, especially during low-light conditions.

9. They move in wave-like patterns.

Caterpillars move by contracting and expanding their specialized muscles and gripping with their legs4. They extend and retract their body segments, resulting in a looping or undulating motion as they crawl.

Caterpillars push their body forward in a wave-like pattern by anchoring their prolegs to a surface. This movement allows them to adapt to different terrains and obstacles, moving efficiently and steadily.

10. Silkworm Caterpillars produce silk.

caterpillar on plant
Photo by Andrew Claypool on Unsplash

Another caterpillar fact that you might be interested in is that Silkworms Caterpillars can spin silk threads from a particular protein in their salivary glands.

They use this silk to weave a cozy cocoon for protection as they transform into pupae. The silken thread spun by a single silkworm can be up to 900 meters long, over half a mile! Humans have been breeding silkworms for their silk for thousands of years, a practice known as sericulture.

While silk and silk fabric has many uses, including in fashion and medicine, silk production involves boiling the cocoon, killing the moth.

Scientists are exploring ways to use silk in medical applications like stitches, artificial skin, and drug delivery systems because our bodies accept silk more quickly than other materials.

11. They are pests.

Caterpillars harm plants2, crops, and trees due to their voracious feeding habits. These pests can increase in numbers quickly and strip vegetation, defoliating plants and leading to substantial economic losses in agricultural and horticultural settings. Their large numbers and insatiable appetites can weaken plants, reduce yields, and cause aesthetic damage.

Pest caterpillars typically have specific host plants, including essential food crops, ornamental plants, or trees. Depending on the species, they can consume various plant parts such as leaves, fruits, stems, and more.

Examples of pest caterpillars include the Corn Earworm, Cabbage Looper, and Gypsy Moth, which can cause severe damage to crops like corn, cabbage, and fruit trees.

Efforts to control or manage pest caterpillars often involve integrated pest management strategies, including biological controls, such as natural enemies or insecticides, when necessary.

Remember to share your favorite caterpillar facts on your social media and tag us!

Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with C.

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1

Dyer, L., Singer, M., Lill, J., et al. Host specificity of Lepidoptera in tropical and temperate forests. Nature 448, 696–699 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05884

2

Lill, J. T., Marquis, R. J., & Ricklefs, R. E. (2002). Host plants influence the parasitism of forest caterpillars. Nature, 417(6885), 170–173.

3

Truman, J. W., & Riddiford, L. M. (1999). The origins of insect metamorphosis. Nature, 401(6752), 447–452.

4

Van Griethuijsen, L. I., & Trimmer, B. A. (2014). Locomotion in caterpillars. Biological Reviews, 89(3), 656–670.

5

Agrawal, A. (2017). Monarchs and Milkweed. Jstor.

Chinny Verana is a degree-qualified marine biologist and researcher passionate about nature and conservation. Her expertise allows her to deeply understand the intricate relationships between marine life and their habitats.

Her unwavering love for the environment fuels her mission to create valuable content for TRVST, ensuring that readers are enlightened about the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation efforts.

Fact Checked By:
Mike Gomez, BA.

Photo by seznandy on Pixabay
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