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Nature & You: Can wingless caterpillars levitate?

A walk in the woods can offer magical discoveries — with sensible explanations. [Thinkstock]
A walk in the woods can offer magical discoveries — with sensible explanations. [Thinkstock]

Butterflies and moths flit here and there because their wings give them the freedom of flight. During the first few days of their life, however, they are wingless caterpillars. 

You might suppose that wingless would be synonymous with flightless. How, then, do you explain the caterpillars that seem to be levitating at eye level when you do your woodland hiking trips at this time of the year? How is that even possible? Is magic at play here?

As you might expect, there's a simple and logical explanation (which has nothing whatsoever to do with sorcery or wizardry).

The next time you're hiking in the forest and you see one of these caterpillars suspended between heaven and Earth, take a closer, more-scrutinizing look. You will notice a very thin, silk thread that suspends the midair caterpillar from the overhead tree limb.

Long story short, it's not magic.

The tale gets its start when the caterpillar is voraciously munching away on a tree leaf. The next thing that happens is a telltale vibration that is caused by a hungry bird landing on the tree branch. 

What's a caterpillar to do? Remember — the caterpillar has no wings. The caterpillar cannot fly away from danger. If the caterpillar stays put, he'll get snapped up by the hungry bird. 

The escape strategy that the caterpillar employs is not unlike what a human bungee jumper does. The caterpillar quickly attaches his safety line to the leaf, and he leaps out into space. The safety line tugs taut and eventually prevents the caterpillar from doing a fatal belly flop on the forest floor. After waiting out the hungry predator, the caterpillar climbs back up his safety line and resumes his leaf-munching activities.

Who would have thought that a tiny, green "worm" could be so brainy?

Neil Garrison

Neil Garrison is an outdoor nature enthusiast. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University/Stillwater; he earned a B.S. degree in Wildlife Ecology. Prior to his 2009 retirement, he was the Naturalist at a central Oklahoma nature center for 30... Read more ›