From Off Track, Radio National. ABC>

In a small valley of moist, old forest near Trentham in Victoria, the air is swirling with the silent wing beats of butterflies.

As the morning warms into the day, more and more zoom around between sunlight and shadow with startling speed.

Ecologist Julie Whitfield looks around the area pointing to the wattle, the mistletoe and the grasses that would serve as host plants for one of the 400 or so species of Australian butterfly larvae.

‘They’re quite specific about their needs,’ says Whitfield of butterfly caterpillars, which range from generalist feeders to incredibly picky eaters.

‘They might require particular sorts of host plants and sometimes they are so specific that the adult will only lay her eggs on a specific species of plant.

‘As an adult they’ll probably in general they’ll feed on any nectar producing flowers, but it’s the larvae that require the very specific species of plant for them to eat as a caterpillar.

‘Something that I was thinking about this morning is a particular children’s book that we all know, about a caterpillar who goes off and feeds on numerous things that are probably not really what his diet would let him tolerate,’ says Whitfield laughing.

It’s a shame that the popular book doesn’t give a more accurate portrayal of the real life of a caterpillar, which is actually more amazing than fiction and involves shepherding ants.


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