Sunday, December 5, 2010
Science and art and pain
Here I am, looking incredibly goofy. That plush on my head is Euclea obliqua, one of my favorite caterpillars (note that it is also drawn on the bottom of my lab coat). Yes they really are that colorful, though instead of fluffy pompoms they have clusters of poison-filled spines. We raised some of them in the lab, and I accidentally got stung by one a few weeks ago. It was much more irritating than I expected! The itching came and went for about a week, and it was another week before the discoloration on my skin went away. My adviser, instead of being concerned, was quite excited. He made sure to document my response to the sting through photos.
When you are a squishy tasty caterpillar, you need a way to defend yourself - which is accomplished in a variety of ingenious ways. Some sequester toxins through their host plant, some use cryptic coloration and/or behaviors, while others are covered in irritating hairs or spines. Some caterpillars can even seriously injure a human - for example the puss caterpillar, Megalopyge opercularis, can cause anywhere from local irritation to chest pains and difficulty breathing.
In our lab we raise hundreds (maybe thousands?) of caterpillars throughout the year, many of which have never been raised in captivity before. We joke that we should purposefully get stung by some of them in order to record their sting intensities... however a willing volunteer has yet to step forward.