Animals often evolve to look scarier than they really are. It's a process mimicked (with clothing, hair and tattoos) by pro wrestlers, gang members and rock guitarists—and unintentionally by junior-high-school girls first learning to wear makeup.
To look more like a snake and less like a two-inch-long bird snack, the Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillar has colorful dots on its face that appear to be large eyes. However, we were charmed, not alarmed, by the big-eyed swallowtail caterpillar we found on the deck at the Notebook this week. It was far too cute for a swallow to swallow or a desperate Survivor contestant to gulp down.
We couldn't immediately identify the type of caterpillar because, according to the most authoritative book we consulted, swallowtail caterpillars are normally bright green. This one was dull green bordering on brown.
Further digging paid off. We found that swallowtail caterpillars can turn brown before pupating. They like to eat ash leaves, and a large ash tree grows up through the Notebook deck. Finally, as we tried to nail down the caterpillar I.D. once and for all, butterfly authorities started landing at the shop like migrating monarchs. We chatted with a microbiologist who has an extensive 100-year-old butterfly collection; a woman who works for the Museum of Natural History in New York and showed us photos of the black swallowtails she had raised; and a pair of moviemakers who had just wrapped a Disneynature film on pollinators that includes not just bees but also hummingbirds, fruit-eating bats and, yes, butterflies (look for more on that big-screen release in a future posting).
As so often happens at the Notebook, we had learned something about a common animal by taking the time to study it. We also had made new friends. Trying to keep up with all the interesting people who've come in over the last few weeks has been a challenge. On a typical day I've ended up in conversations with shop visitors about everything from the history of polar bears to chimp parasites to eco-tourism in Bulgaria (a surprisingly fun and budget-friendly place to visit, especially in these hard economic times).
We've also greeted a large number of people holding GPS devices and using longitude and latitude coordinates to try to find a "geocache" box of treasures hidden not far from our building. Which leads me to the troll.
Since Pamelia and our friend Nat Smith hid the treasure box and posted its coordinates on www.geocaching.com, adventurous souls have sought it out. Yesterday, one of the geocachers, a woman, stopped into the Notebook to show us the troll she planned to put into the treasure box (everyone who finds the box must take one item out and put one item in).
This was no ordinary troll, if there is such a thing. This one had a dog tag identifying it as a Travel Bug—the geocaching equivalent of a Flat Stanley, sent out into the world to be passed from one person to another, its journey logged by those who temporarily have it. The troll also had a paper sign attached saying that he was named WikiPu, had started his trip in Germany and hoped to visit Alaska, the West Coast of the U.S. and Tierra del Fuego before making his way back to his homeland. He'll stay in our geocache box until the next GPS-bearing seeker takes him and carries him west.
Happy travels, WikiPu. You're a lot scarier looking than the caterpillar, so you should be safe.