OSU ecologist’s book of caterpillar portraits published by Harvard Press

June 7, 2006

Chiodes caterpillar photo by Jeffrey Miller

This Chiodes caterpillar sports spots that resemble large eyes. Its real eyes are nothing more than a few light gathering cells low on the side of its head. It is a member of the same family as skipper butterflies.
Photo: Jeffrey C. Miller, Oregon State University

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University insect ecologist Jeffrey Miller takes pictures of caterpillars - stunning portraits, to be exact - beautiful enough to grace the pages of the new, large-format book just published by Harvard University Press.

The book, called "100 Caterpillars: Portraits from the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica," was written by Miller, Daniel H. Janzen and Winifred Hallwachs.

"Tropical caterpillars are amazing," said Miller. "They are huge, they are wild and they are so diverse down there, compared to here in Oregon."

With more than 100 large-format photographs of caterpillars, the new book documents the dizzying variety of shapes, vivid colors and cryptic markings among these species.

Miller is a professor in OSU's Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management. Janzen and Hallwachs are tropical ecologists from University of Pennsylvania. They worked together on the book, revealing life histories of caterpillars that are as diverse as their forms – and producing magnificent images of the adult butterfly or moth. The authors convey an intimate sense of these creatures, studied for more than 25 years, by focusing on caterpillar behavior, ecology and not least, beauty.

Miller's interest in photographing caterpillars began two decades ago as a way to record and help identify species of larval moths and butterflies for his research in OSU's H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest and other sites around the Pacific Northwest.

To identify what species a caterpillar may be is often not an easy task, said Miller. Most manuals, if there are any at all, only identify the adults – butterflies and moths.

"When biologists collect caterpillars in a new area, they usually have no idea what species they are," explained Miller. "We have to beat the shrubs, catch, collect and rear caterpillars carefully."

The wiggling captives are brought back into a lab and reared in containers, one per container, along with the plants from which they came.

"Insect ecologists like myself have to photograph caterpillars before we rear them into adults," Miller said. "When we finally rear the larvae into an adult, we have the record and photograph of the larvae it once was. Once identified, we can make the link between the butterfly or moth and its caterpillar and its habitat, in particular, its food plant. In many cases, this has never been done before."

Miller has had plenty of practice photographing his subjects. As author of the 1995 U.S. Forest Service Report "Caterpillars of Pacific Northwest Forests and Woodlands" and other studies, he photographed, reared and identified more than 500 species of moth and butterfly in the Pacific Northwest.

"Some years I reared, photographed and identified more than 7,000 specimens in a single field season," he said.

Miller's work caught the attention of University of Pennsylvania tropical ecologist Dan Janzen, who invited him and many of the other world caterpillar experts to a caterpillar biodiversity symposium in Costa Rica in 2003. These 40-some experts went on field trips to nature preserves.

On one of the last nights of that gathering, Miller shared his digital photos of the caterpillars he had taken on the field trips that week via a computer projector with the other scientists, including Janzen.

"The group was blown away," said Miller. "I thought, if I could impress caterpillar experts, I figured my work must be good. I asked Janzen if he wanted to collaborate on a book of caterpillars in the Area de Conservation Guanacaste (ACG), part of a Costa Rican National Park he helped to establish.

"To my surprise and delight, he said 'yes.'"

Returning to Costa Rica three more times during 2004-05, Miller visited Janzen's "rearing barns," in the ACG to photograph caterpillars. This particular reserve is unique, established through participation of local Costa Rican farm families. Janzen trained some of them as "gusaneros" (caterpillar collectors and rearers) and together, the scientists and the locals have deepened understanding of Costa Rica's butterflies and moths and have brought about advances in restoration ecology of tropical habitats, said Miller.

The OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researcher is quick to credit Janzen and his gusaneros for the success of his work photographing Costa Rican caterpillars.

"It is testimony to the success of Janzen and his trained local 'para-biologists' or gusaneros," said Miller. "They were successfully rearing caterpillars to adults for identification in several habitats – tropical dry forests, cloud forests and rain forests of northwestern region of Costa Rica. If it weren't for them, this never would have happened. I just traveled with my field studio – a digital camera, a table, a computer and a back drop – and photographed their living specimens. The rest is all their work."

The authors are working on a second companion volume, close-ups of adult moths and butterflies, which also will be published in 2007 by Harvard University Press.

Author: Carol Savonen
Source: Jeffrey C. Miller