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Butterflies and Caterpillars: A Talk at Sugarlands Visitor Center September 21

Posted by | 08.27.2018

By Frances Figart

Julie Elliott fell in love with caterpillars when visiting her sister who collected and raised monarch butterflies. Looking for caterpillars on her sister's Ohio property, Julie happened to see a caterpillar that looked just like a browned leaf edge. It was the Black-Blotched Schizura… and she was hooked.

Now retired from Scripps Networks Interactive (creators of HGTV and the Food Network), Julie refers to herself as a “citizen scientist who specializes in caterpillars.” She is billed as a Lepidopteran specialist in Discover Life in America’s promotions for the Science at Sugarlands series of talks. Hers on "Butterflies and Caterpillars in the Smokies" is slated for September 21 at 1 p.m. at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

FF: What does it mean to be a Lepidopteran specialist? 

JE: I’m a person who studies Lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. Lepidoptera includes the complete life cycle from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa and finally adult. 

FF: After you first got excited about the Black-Blotched Schizura, how did you get more involved in this field? 

JE: I started about 10 years ago, collecting a few caterpillars from my own backyard, just over one acre in Louisville, TN. I raise them to adults and then release them. I also took a photography course to improve my photos as they are an important aspect of the study. 

FF: You’ve traveled as part of your study, too, right? 

JE: I learned a lot on my own, but was very excited to attend an Earthwatch caterpillar expedition in Costa Rica, which focused on the impact of climate change on the relationship among the plants, caterpillars and their parasites. We stayed at the La Selva Research Station located in the middle of a jungle preserve. It was a wonderful adventure, and I learned a lot about caterpillars. 

In addition, this past summer I was able to volunteer on the Earthwatch Arizona expedition where we collected caterpillars in the desert. All of these collections are added to a database that tracks the distribution of the various species as well as the parasitism rates and types. 

FF: What can folks look forward to during your discussion on September 21?

JE: I plan to bring some of my live caterpillars, as well as some of the pinned adults and then have a PowerPoint presentation followed by a chance to go outside and practice some of the collecting techniques on the trees and plants near the Sugarlands Visitor Center. We will release the caterpillars once everyone has had a chance to look at them.

Topics will include:

  • Basic morphology of the caterpillar
  • Moths versus butterflies
  • Caterpillar defenses
  • Caterpillar enemies
  • Caterpillar collecting techniques
  • Raising caterpillars
  • Moth and butterfly collecting

FF: Why are caterpillars important for the sustainability of our planet? 

JE: In addition to many of them becoming pollinators, caterpillars themselves are a significant component of the food web, providing nourishment for most of our songbirds.

FF: What are some of the ways guests of the park help pollinators? 

JE: When I was a kid and attended summer camp, our motto was to leave the campsite better than we found it. This still holds true today. When visiting the park, do not pick the flowers or gather any butterflies, moths or caterpillars. Do your best to not disturb the land by staying on marked trails and leaving no trash or other signs that you were there. If you find trash from others, haul it out. 

At your home, you can help by planting native plants, trees, shrubs and flowers. While showy non-native plants may look pretty, they are actually a barren food desert for the caterpillars and other local insects. It’s best to stick with native species for planting. 

Science at Sugarlands talks begin at 1 p.m. and are family-friendly, free and open to the public at Sugarlands Visitor Center, 1420 Fighting Creek Gap Road, Gatlinburg, TN.