When Bugs Bite Back

It may not seem like it, but chasing butterflies and caterpillars can be a painful business.  Just ask ecology student Kylie Isaack.  She found out the hard way when the cute little creature in this video let her know it didn’t want to be researched.

That ‘cute little creature’ is a juvenile Lepidoptera. What you and I would call a caterpillar.  What ecologists call a herbivore.  Its cousins in the insect world are nectavores.  What you and I would call pollinators… critical to the spreading of the beautiful plants and flowers that are such an important part of Costa Rica.

Now, technically the caterpillar didn’t bite her.  The hairs on its body have a little bit of toxin in them.  When that toxin gets on your skin, it stings. In ecology research in Costa Rica it is “part of the job.”  Also part of the job is watching… and waiting… and watching… and waiting… sort of like this.

But there’s also a lot of gathering of material… flowers, plants, insects.  And all the time documenting what they see, where they saw it, and what were the conditions at the time.

In this particular group, the students say they are trying to determine whether more flowers mean more herbivores and whether more herbivores mean less pollinators.  Or to state it as a more scientific hypotheses:

The amount of leaf herbivory will differ among different plant species, and the amount of plant herbivory will vary based on the physical defenses of the plants.  The rational behind the science is that different plant species allocate differing amount of resources to get chemical protection from herbivores and that plants with a) hairs and/ or b) tougher leaves will be less susceptible to insect damage.

In the field that means counting pollinators and herbivores… flowers and leaves… determining surface area loss… examining the plants at night as well as during the day… microscopic examinations. In the end, looking for patterns that tell a story that the students hope will help people better understand the biodiversity so critical to our environment.

(Credits:  Students in this group include: Destin Miller, Kylie Isaack, Erin Kelly, Christopher Fernandez, Malcom Bernard)

(Footnote:  The students are still analyzing the data to determine what patterns emerge from their research.  We will provide an update on their work when that is complete.)


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