• Kirk Mason

Buff-tip Caterpillars - a life Gregarious?

Gregarious living may sound like a diet based on cheap sausage rolls and baked bean slices, but is actually a survival strategy for many species.

To live gregariously for animals is to live in an organised community. Insects such as ants, termites, bees and wasps come to mind, but how do less structured communities of insects such as the buff-tip caterpillar fit into this idea? Bees, wasps, ants and termites display a form of altruism, in which individuals that are unable to reproduce will lay down their lives for kin and carry out duties such as nest cleaning or retrieving food for others.

However, social caterpillars are somewhat different. They may collaborate in building a silken tent, body temperature regulation, defence against predators, finding food or breaking it down. Buff-tip moth caterpillars do not live gregariously for their entire lives. Once the caterpillars reach the later stages of their development, they branch out to forage by themselves. Once large enough, they pupate underground in tiny chambers and emerge the following year as moths.

Gregarious living is not just used by small animals such as the insects, but is seen in animals as large as elephants. Even the mighty Tyrannosaurids may have lived gregariously during the earlier stages of their lives, sharing the burden of catching prey between several individuals!

For some of us, living gregariously seems like a distant pipe dream. Personally, I see these times as a pupation period – somewhat boring but underneath the surface, growth is happening!

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