What a wonderful world!

Forty two salmon arab butterfly caterpillars on a meswak leaf in Mumbai
Photo: © Yogesh Chawan / Sanctuary Photolibrary

How stunning is this? One of Mumbai’s inveterate naturalists, Yogesh Chavan, found 42 (count them!) exquisitely arranged salmon Arab butterfly caterpillars on a single meswak leaf at the Bhandup Pumping Station next to Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

The collective caterpillar display has everything to do with survival. Function is central to the body design and behaviour of all living creatures. Butterflies almost invariably lay their eggs on specific ‘host plants’ so the larvae that emerge from the eggs are able to fulfil their singular purpose in life… to eat!

The first meal tends to be the eggshell… then the leaf on which the egg was carefully laid. Caterpillars could consume 25,000 times their original body weight, moulting several times before metamorphosing into the next stage of their life cycle. I have edited Sanctuary for 38 years now, but am still frustrated by how little I know. Did you know that caterpillars possess as many as 4,000 muscles? You have just 629 and they have 248 muscles in their head capsules alone!

Though they can’t see very well at all, they actually have six times as many eyes as you do. And no, they do not have a large number of legs. They are insects and have just six. Their other appendages that look like legs are ‘prolegs’ that help them hold on to plants for dear life! When they turn into butterflies, all but the six legs attached to their thoracic segments will drop off.

With no weapons to defend themselves, these soft-bodied creatures pack an impressive arsenal to ward off predators. Some steal poisons from host plants to deter birds and other insects and, you better believe it, some adjust their blood pressure to assist in locomotion.

How does all this magic happen? Your guess is as good as mine. But this I know… Dr. Richard Dawkins got it right when he said: “The truth is more magical — in the best and most exciting sense of the word — than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of reality.”

The next time you visit a distant wilderness, remember the wild exists right next to you, in your home, in your gardens… even in your gut!

As singer Louis Armstrong exclaimed… long before Dawkins: “What a wonderful world!”

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 4, April 2018.

Bittu Sahgal

Bittu Sahgal

Editor at Sanctuary Asia
Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's premier wildlife and ecology magazine.
Bittu Sahgal

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Bittu Sahgal

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's premier wildlife and ecology magazine.