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  Field Notes From
Killer Caterpillars

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From Author/Photographer

Darlyne A. Murawski

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Meaghan Mulholland


Killer Caterpillars

Field Notes From Author/Photographer
Darlyne A. Murawski
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    The thrill of finding carnivorous caterpillars in the field for the first time was indescribable—and pulling it off was a real team effort.
    Harvard professor Naomi Pierce put me in touch with the experts in Australia, Denmark, and Hawaii. With their help I spent days—sometimes weeks—searching for the critters, which are tough to spot because they often live underground, hide in ant nests, or use ingenious camouflage. After finding and observing the caterpillars, I needed to figure out how to photograph them in action.  Patience and persistence were key—not to mention the use of macrolenses and hooking pupae to motion-detecting alarms. I couldn't have done it without all the researchers who shared their knowledge and hospitality with me.

    By far the worst experience was feeling hundreds of green tree ants scrambling up my arms and legs, biting me all over, and squirting acid into the wounds. This torture began in northern Queensland, Australia, where biologist Rod Eastwood and I were searching for Liphyra brassolis caterpillars. These carnivores live in green tree ant nests, where they eat the baby ants. Rob and I had to open about a hundred nests of these infamous pests before we found even one caterpillar. Our constant cry to the attacking ants was "Not the neck!" I never realized how sensitive our necks could be.
    We could have worn beekeeper suits, but with high humidity and an outdoor temperature around 100°F (38°C), we couldn't tolerate extra clothing. The rubber surgical gloves were bad enough. In no time, they'd fill up with sweat like water balloons. Toward the end of our long search, I found that the ants had a hard time climbing up surgical gloves, so we made ankle guards from the wrist portions. It was better than nothing.

    I was shooting a red flower-mimicking caterpillar on top of a mountain in Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park. After sitting on the ground for an hour or so, totally absorbed in my work, I stood up and couldn't for the life of me figure out why my pants were soaking wet. Looking around, I discovered I had plopped myself down on top of a small volcanic steam vent.

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