Please don’t pet the caterpillars

A sharp stinging burning sensation erupted on my right arm and quickly spread through my shoulder. It was enough for me to bite my lip so hard that it bled. I’d never felt anything like it before: this was off the charts on the pain index. I looked around for a wasp or ant but saw nothing: the culprit was nowhere to be found. My Katu guide gave a short grunt and turned over a nearby leaf. And there was one of the most colorful, striking, alien-looking creatures I have ever seen: hairy, oblong, many-legged, yellow like a scrap of sun. A caterpillar. Beautiful—and deadly. (Like the women in Laos, I told my guides, who laughed and said it was an apt analogy). Somehow I had accidentally brushed up against it while we were walking. Then the hairs on the caterpillar, which function like hypodermic needles, had injected a painful dose of chemical cocktail. Even then, as I quite literally writhed in pain, I remember being awe-struck at Nature’s ingenuity: think of the millions of years of evolution, the countless predator-prey interactions, it took to create this defensive marvel. Imagine that you are a colorful, tasty treat: What better way to protect yourself than to be covered in wooly-mammoth-like hairs that deliver a knockout dose of poison? Wonderful!

I don’t mind sharing (bragging?) that in the past few years wandering through the jungles of South America and Southeast Asia I’ve been bitten and stung by an astonishing assortment of arthropods: ant’s, wasps, bees, spiders, scorpions, centipedes . . . you name it. However, the caterpillars, to my mind, take the cake for most-unpleasant-to-encounter jungle critter. Which surprises many people, who are used to thinking of caterpillars as mostly harmless annoyances found munching on leaves in the backyard garden. In temperate climates, that’s true. But in the tropics, these nascent Lepidoptera, so beautifully patterned in bright bundles of color and fur, can be dangerous. In a place where survival of the fittest is taken to its extreme, caterpillars are not to be trifled with.

As we walked back to camp, I chastised myself for not being more careful: I had only myself to blame. I should have been more careful with where I was walking. After all, it wasn’t as if the caterpillar had come roaring out of the forest and attacked me. Rather, I had been careless. And now I was paying the price. When I got back to camp I would pop a few pain pills and take several drags of strong Katu tobacco (what do they put in that stuff, anyways?) to dull the pain. And I’d be fine. But, so that my mistake is not repeated, please take the advice from someone who has been there: When you next go to the jungle, watch your step, and please don’t pet the caterpillars.

Jungle caterpillar
Jungle caterpillar
Beautiful—but deadly!
Beautiful—but deadly!

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