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Caterpillars of Eastern Forests


Although we have tried to minimize the usage of specialized terms, the introduction of some entomological nomenclature is unavoidable. A brief review of the basic terminology for caterpillar anatomy (figure 1) follows.

The head (figure 2) bears 6 lateral eyes (the stemmata) that are usually arranged in a crude circle—other insect larvae resembling caterpillars have only a single lateral eye. Short antennae are positioned between the mouthparts and the lateral eyes. The labrum, or upper lip, may be cleft, with the notch engaging the leaf while the larva is feeding. A second diagnostic feature shared by all true caterpillars is an inverted Y that runs down the middle of the face (figure 2). The lower arms of the Y delimit the frons, or frontal triangle; the upper portion extends back to the thorax. The 3 thoracic segments each bear a pair of segmented (true) legs with a terminal claw, the thoracic legs. On the dorsal, or upper side, of the first thoracic segment, there is commonly a hardened plate called the prothoracic shield. The abdomen is composed of 10 segments. Most caterpillars possess 4 pairs of fleshy, unsegmented midabdominal prolegs on their third, fourth, fifth, and sixth segments and a pair of anal prolegs on the last segment. Because exceptions are numerous, the number and relative size of the prolegs is often important in the recognition of families. The prolegs bear a series of hooks, called crochets, that are used by the caterpillar to engage the substrate and maintain their purchase (figures 3 and 4). The number, size, and arrangement of the crochets are often useful in identification. Sawfly immatures are caterpillarlike, but differ in the possession of more than 4 pairs of midabdominal prolegs, none of which bear crochets.

GIF-Diagrammatic sketches of caterpillar as a whole and parts
Figure 1Diagrammatic sketch of a caterpillar.  Figure 2Frontal view of caterpillar head.  Figure 3Crochet arrangement on midabdominal proleg of a noctuid.  Figure 4Crochet arrangement on midabdominal proleg of an arctiid.

The lateral spiracles—the external openings to the caterpillar's respiratory system—can serve as reliable landmarks. All caterpillars have 9 pairs. There is 1 pair on the first thoracic segment; the remaining pairs are located on the first 8 abdominal segments. The thoracic and last abdominal spiracles are often twice the size of those in between. As a matter of course, we use the term stripe for those markings that run along the body axis and band (broad markings) or ring (narrow markings) for those that run around individual segments. The integument, or skin, bears variously modified setae. These may be short or long, stiff or downy, sharpened apically or paddlelike; some resemble hairs, others are peglike, scalelike, or spinelike. In a few silkworm, slug, and puss caterpillars, the larvae may inflict a painful sting with specialized poison-filled setae. In Figures 1-4 we illustrate many of the features mentioned in the species accounts. We also include a glossary for specialized terminology.

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