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Caterpillars of Eastern Forests

Photographing Caterpillars

Because many caterpillars have unique coloration and morphology, it is often possible to make accurate identifications from color images, particularly if data on host, date, and other information have been retained with the slide, print, or image file. The best single image is usually a dorsolateral view in which both the head and abdomen are in the plane of focus. A dorsal shot and a close up of the head can be helpful for the identification of many species. In certain groups such as the underwing moths, the coloration of the venter and nature of the subventral fringe may be necessary to determine identity.

Relative to their winged parents, caterpillars are easy subjects for photography. There are few requirements other than a camera with a macro lens. A set of extension tubes or diopters will be needed for full-sized images of smaller instars and species. Although natural light images are often superior to those obtained by flash, we have embraced the latter technique because it allows us to routinely use hand-held exposures at higher F-stops and slower, more fine-grained films.

The images included in this guide were obtained with a variety of systems including Minolta®, Olympus®, and Nikkon® bodies; manual and automatic focusing systems; ring, single, and double-flash units; Ektachrome®, Fujichrome®, and Kodachrome® films, etc. Although we have our decided preferences, it is more important to emphasize that nearly all of today's camera systems have superb optics that will yield excellent images with but minimal experimentation.

A few of our images were obtained in the field, but most were taken in the laboratory. Generally we work sitting down with our arms resting on a counter top, which allows us to rock back and forth through the plane of focus many times before taking a picture. Indoors it is also a simple matter to add supplemental lighting to better illuminate small or dark caterpillars. We can readily change the background to highlight white or black setae or other features that are important in identification.

As noted earlier, the life histories of many North American Lepidoptera are still unknown or poorly described. Diagnostic photographs of the immature stages are lacking for a large number of forest-dwelling moths. Little caterpillar behavior has been captured on film—in our forests there are lifetimes of rewarding opportunities for even the part-time nature photographer.

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