31 Jan 2014

What’s the Name of That Caterpillar?: A Sampling of Identification Guides (Part I)

by Jan Thornhill

It’s the middle of winter, not exactly a traditional season for mushrooming, but the big table in my dining room is nonetheless covered with fungal specimens—weird crusts, desiccated jellies, mini shriveled cups, spore-spewing remnants of slime moulds—all of which I’ve peeled off frozen logs and dead branches with my equally frozen fingers. Many of them I’ve never seen before. Many are minute. Many take hours to identify. But I don’t care how long it takes to find out what they are. I want to know their names. I need to know their names.
Yes, I'm even dragging chunks of firewood up to my table.
Am I weird to be so obsessed with the sorting and naming of my mycological discoveries? Hardly. It turns out I’m not weird at all. Sorting and naming living things is hardwired into all of us. We are intuitively ontological animals, and we start out this way in infancy. Human babies are adept from a very early age at distinguishing between what is alive and what is not, and show a clear preference, (judged by length of attention span), for depictions of animals—of pandas and frogs and chickens, as opposed to hats and hammers and rocks. This preference, along with an ability to easily distinguish between different genera, is even more apparent once we begin to talk.

In one analysis of the first 25 nouns spoken by babies, an average of more than ten of those words represented animals of some sort or form: dog, cat, bird, Daddy, baby, etc. And babies don't just name. They are amazingly adept at sorting, at practicing folk taxonomy. Toddlers, who have only just figured out what DOG is, have an almost mysterious ability to instantly place both a
Chihuahua and a Great Dane—despite the gross visual differences between those breeds—into that DOG category. 
(Image: Shutterstock)
This predisposition to sort and name living things is an adaptation that has stood our species well. For millennia it was crucial to our survival, in all stages of life, to be able to identify which living things were of benefit to us and which could cause us harm. Though most of us in the western world are now far removed from those original wild environments, we continue to exhibit an uncommon interest in other animal species, most strikingly when we’re young, evidenced by the collections of stuffed animals in many children's rooms, the preponderance of animal-themed picture books (some of which I'm responsible for), and, of course, by those dinosaur fanatics who, by the age of seven, can not only name an astonishing taxa of prehistoric creatures, but can also clearly articulate the differences between them. 

Though never a dinosaur fanatic myself, I have been a more than keen sorter and name-seeker since childhood. Birds, butterflies, fossils, leaves, beetles, skulls, animals tracks—I've spent time with them all. And I am not alone. It turns out that there are lots of people out there who are way, way more obsessed with this naming and sorting business than I have ever been. And some of these people write books to help those of us who are identification-obsessed, and some of these books are very specialized.

Jewel Beetles

Take jewel beetles, for instance. Never heard of them? Well, you've actually probably heard of one: the Emerald Ash Borer that has killed tens of millions of ash trees on this continent since its accidental introduction in the 1990s. The Emerald Ash Borer, along with the other 163 named jewel beetles found in northeastern North America, is featured in the new, and very specialized, Field Guide to Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America (Canadian Food Inspection Agency). Specialized, however, doesn't mean this book isn't a jewel itself—and it doesn't hurt that it's free (though they might have run out). 

Each species—many of which are gorgeously iridescent, hence their common name—is represented with at least four clear photographs, including dorsal views of male genitalia, which are apparently helpful for identification. The facing pages have range maps, detailed notes, and easy-to-grasp icons indicating size, habitat, and feeding habits. Sections at the front include the morphology of jewel beetles, tips on finding and preserving them, a glossary, a technical key, and, for those who are inspired to take the task of identification seriously, there is also an illustrated tutorial on how to dissect jewel beetle genitalia to help separate cryptic species! 


Are jewel beetles too specific? How about the lowly caterpillar, then? Though many of us can recognize a monarch butterfly’s striking larva, most of us would be hard-pressed to identify many others. Yes, there are butterfly guides that include a few pictures of the most common Lepidoptera progeny, but the identity of most caterpillars has been out of reach for a lay person. Until now.
David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut, has finally come to our rescue with Caterpillars of Eastern North America (Princeton University Press). Inside this beautifully produced guide are photographs of the caterpillars of nearly 700 species of butterflies and moths. The first thirty pages of the book contain masses of information covering caterpillar anatomy, life cycle, where to find them, how to rear and overwinter them, and more. In the guide portion of the book, each page includes at least one close-up of the star, plus another of an adult specimen, along with a clear description of the larva, its habitat and range, and its food plants. The best part, though, are the detailed Remarks that are so filled with bewitching ecological, historical, and behavioural details, it's difficult to put the book down. Where else would one not only learn that the Scarlet-winged Lichen Moth practices "fecal flicking" to avoid detection by parasitic and predatory moths, but exactly how this "flicking" mechanism works? 


The Scarlet-winged Lichen moth is also featured in the new Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), as are nearly 1,500 other species. For someone like me who has been known to spend hours on the porch with flashlight and magnifying glass glorying in the exquisite beauty of the "jewels of the night" that collect under the illumination of the porch light, this book is a godsend. 
Co-authors, David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie (both Ontarians), present each species in natural resting position, instead of with wings spread the way they are when pinned, as they have been depicted in other guides. Range maps are included, as are colour bars that indicate when you are most likely to see each species. Beyond this book's near perfection as a field guide, there are comprehensive sections at the beginning that cover various aspects of "mothing" (new word!), such as "How to Find" and "How to Photograph." The names alone are so much fun—Pink-patched Looper, Music-loving Moth—that I can't wait till the weather warms enough to get out there under my porch light with magnifying glass. In the meantime, I could start up a heavy metal band and maybe call it Fragile Dagger. Or Impudent Hulda. Or Sordid Wainscot. The possibilities are endless.

Part II coming February 14!

  • Field Guide to Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America, S.M. Paiero, M. Jackson, A. Jewiss-Gaines , T. Kimoto, B.D. Gill, and S.A. Marshal, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 2012. 411p. ISBN: 978-1-100-19794-4
  • Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History, David L. Wagner, Princeton University Press, 2005. 496p. ISBN: 0691121443
  • Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, David Beadle, Seabrooke Leckie, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 624p. ISBN: 9780547238487

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