Creepy Crawlers

By Natalie McManus

Today started off weird. I did not sleep well the night before, which made me tired and put me in an anti-social mood for the beginning of the day. Fortunately, by late afternoon my day started to get better, and I was able to get out of my funk. This was largely due to processionary caterpillars that I saw traveling and a termite lecture that was given while on a group walk.

This image shows all of the caterpillars traveling from one tree to the next. Though, since there are a lot of caterpillars in the line, it is almost impossible to see their silk trail.

This image shows all of the caterpillars traveling from one tree to the next. Though, since there are a lot of caterpillars in the line, it is almost impossible to see their silk trail.

The processionary caterpillars were traveling in a way that I have never seen caterpillars move. There were 25 of them, and they were crawling in a tight head-to-tail line. In addition to this, each caterpillar seemed to be secreting a silk string out of a glad near their behind. When I saw this, I figured that they were traveling to find food, but I was not sure why they were moving locations the way they were or the purpose of the silk. I perceived that the silk was so they could find their way back to their starting location and that their head-to-tail formation was to not get lost. Luckily, another student on the trip took a time-lapse video that turned out really well, so we were able to ask these questions to Nolan (our teaching assistant). He told us that they were traveling to a new tree to feed off some new leaves, which makes sense! He also told us that they were in a tight line so they looked more intimidating to predators, like birds, and the silk trail was there so that if one caterpillar got lost, they could find their way back to the rest of them. These caterpillars made my day. Right after seeing the caterpillars, we went on a walk where we were taught about termites and I never knew termites were so fascinating! We did not walk very far, maybe 1/3 of a mile, and we were able to see a variety of types of termite mounds including active and abandoned ones. Here are some of my favorite facts that I learned…

1.    The weight of termites in South Africa exceeds that of all the herbivores, including elephants!

2.    Termites are major decomposers and without them it is said that we would be neck deep in dead material… so thank you termites!

Here is an image of a large, active termite mound.

Here is an image of a large, active termite mound.

3.    Termites remove dead material and graze down plant material around their mounds, which prevents the mounds from burning during fires. Often there will be fire sensitive trees growing in them that will be protected by the termites.

4.    The way to tell if the termite mound is abandoned is if there are grasses growing on the mound and if there are lots of holes in the sides of the mound. This is because the termites are no longer there to upkeep their mound. 

5.    The inside of termite mounds is very warm and very humid. It reminded me of what summers in Texas felt like which is where I lived for almost 18 years!

These are two examples of abandoned termite mounds. This can be seen by the vegetation growing over the mound (left picture) and the holes going up the side of the mound (right picture).

These are two examples of abandoned termite mounds. This can be seen by the vegetation growing over the mound (left picture) and the holes going up the side of the mound (right picture).

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Madison Waggoner