Today was our last day hunting for caterpillars, and it was a particularly challenging task. To reach our last plot area we waded through mucky murky ankle deep water into a thicket of mosquitoes and bamboo. I couldn't help but wonder what the alligators and snakes were up to somewhere in that swamp, and it was getting dark. Working as a team made all the difference. We worked together not only to count caterpillars and estimate vegetation and caterpillar damage to plants, but we also kept each other's
spirits up. It felt very good to finish our last caterpillar hunt together.
What have we accomplished while we were here? According to the lead scientist, we helped gather and report data that will contribute to research about the effects of climate change and catastrophic weather events (such as hurricanes) on this ecosystem and others around the world. It takes a long time for one person to gather this data, so Rebecca Hazen (the project leader) was very appreciative of the plots that we counted in our time here. We contributed over 150 caterpillars for her to raise in the lab and see if the caterpillars' natural predators are fufilling their niche. (See the picture of the caterpillar on the blue background. That is a caterpillar that has parisitoids using it as a food source. This seems a bit gross as the predator grows inside the caterpillar and eats it from the inside out, but without this parisitoid doing its job, the caterpillars will overpopulate.)
How can research like this be used? One idea is that in areas where caterpillars are overpopulating and causing too much damage to the plants or to farmer's crops, for example, there may be a way to introduce the parisitoids to help stop the caterpillar problem. In order to do this, we have to understand the food web relationship between the caterpillars, plants, and paristitoids. In the years since this research began at this site in Louisiana, more than 12,000 caterpillars have been captured, recorded, and raised to see if they have parisitoids. Rebecca told me that Dr. Dyer, the lead scientist, plans to continue for many years to come to see the caterpillar-plant- parisitoid relationship over the long term.
Today, we are heading back to the biology lab at Tulane University. We will transport our interesting and unique caterpillar zoo to the lab there. We will empty the frass out of the caterpillar bags one last time, enter data into the computer, photograph the caterpillars we caught yesterday, make sure the critters have enough to eat, look at very cool stuff under the microscopes and hand lenses, and then pack up and get ready to head home. We are planning to have a little fun in New Orleans tomorrow before getting on the plane on Sunday. It is Halloween here too, you know!
It has been fun sharing this adventure you. Thank you for all of those great comments and questions. I'll see you soon! I'm looking forward to being back in the classroom. I have missed all of you, and can't wait to share more pictures and videos with you and answer your questions in person. Oh, and guess what? That elusive alligator, well.....................
Oh, and one last question. What do you think frass is? Why do we empty it out of the bags?
This was a particularly challenging day in the field. To set up our final plot area to catch our last batch of caterpillars, we had to make our way through a mucky watery swamp. It was nearly dark when we started, and I couldn't help but wonder if there were snakes and alligators nearby as we walked in muddy green water up to our ankles and higher.