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Creepy crawlers fascinate; Tower Hill Botanic Garden visitors observe caterpillars.

Byline: Karen Nugent

BOYLSTON -- Caterpillars don't always turn into gorgeous butterflies. Often, the wormlike wingless creatures end up as plain old moths.

And as demonstrated at a live caterpillar show Sunday at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, sometimes that first stage is much more fascinating than the winged end product.

"Look at how BIG it is,'' exclaimed McKenna Dyer, 8, as she stared wide-eyed at a group of bright green hickory horned devil caterpillars. The species, measuring around 5 inches long, were by far the largest, in length and girth, in the show. The moving black horns along the body added to the creature's attraction.

But those who are not so fond of big fat caterpillars, such as Judy DeWitt of Holliston ("I'm not into bugs'') needn't worry: The horned devils are no longer found in Massachusetts, according to Samuel Jaffe, a Brown University-educated naturalist, biologist and nature photographer who brought the show to Tower Hill.

Mr. Jaffe, 30, a Newton native who lives in Keene, N.H., while attending Antioch University as an environmental education major, said while he has long been interested in caterpillars, he became dedicated after taking photographs of native New England species in 2008. Holding a large caterpillar that changes color from red to green for camouflage (in its "wandering phase'') Mr. Jaffe said he realized photography alone was not enough to demonstrate their charisma.

After a successful photography exhibit in 2011 at the Children's Museum in Boston, followed by six live shows, he founded "The Caterpillar Project'' using Kickstarter, and was contacted earlier this year by the BBC to do a documentary.

This summer, Mr. Jaffe has toured New England with his hand-raised brood of 30 to 80 species, along with his photographs, to various museums, nature centers, festivals, farmers markets, and other venues to educate children and adults.

Most of the caterpillars are gathered from his yard, but some rare types are bought from breeders.

"They're just not as well-known as say, birds,'' he said. "People don't realize how many are in their own backyards, and it's surprising.''

Crowds of all ages gathered around approximately 25 jars holding plants with caterpillars -- ranging in size from less than a half-inch to about 5 inches-- clinging to branches and leaves. Some held lots of caterpillars, a few fast-moving types, that fell on the floor only to be rescued by Linda Raibert, who described her job as a "caterpillar wrangler.''

Some, such as the Abbott's sphinx, which hides on its host, the grapevine and the Oak beauty, were camouflaged so well it was difficult to spot them at all.

Attendees could watch smaller species via a camera that enlarged live images on a monitor.

Mr. Jaffe gave demonstrations showing cocoons with pupa (the stage between caterpillar and moth) by opening the cocoon and revealing a black, partially developed moth that moved a bit when touched. His moths, he said, do not spin fine silk, but do spin a sort of heavy-duty stiff material for protection against predators such as flies. The moths take a year or so to develop, he told groups of children, and when they emerge, they pump their wings several times to puff them up. This releases a fluid that Mr. Jaffe said has splattered him in the face a few times.

A chrysalis is a butterfly pupa, and there were a few small butterflies included in the show.

Victoria Miller, 10, of Connecticut, who was in the area visiting relatives with her mother, Alina Miller, said her favorite caterpillar was the milkweed tussock, because it is colored blue, has small tentacles, and is soft.

"It's got a little hairdo,'' she said with a laugh.

"Elizabeth Kilsiewicz of Grafton was at the show to see more of Mr. Jaffe's photographs, which she previously viewed at an Audubon exhibit in Worcester.

"I just love his pictures,'' she said.

As for Ms. DeWitt, who doesn't love insects, she said she was at Tower Hill for the plants, and happened upon the show.

"That doesn't mean they don't have a right to be here. I know they have a purpose,'' she acknowledged while quickly exiting the room.
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Nugent, Karen
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 26, 2013
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