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Perspective

Changes In View Can Trigger New Discoveries

Caterpillar disguising itself as a twig in the garden. Photo by Katie Finch

Working in a garden can force a change in perspective.

Kneeling down to get hands in the dirt, plants tower over the gardener. They no longer look down on plants but look through. On one particular day while gardening, I found myself face to face with sturdy stems and broad curved leaves of lilies.

Changes in perspective can trigger new insights and discoveries. I see black specks atop some lily leaves. A few leaves are chewed. A sure sign of an insect, perhaps a caterpillar. After searching, I found several caterpillars. But even with the very narrow boundaries of two half-grown lily plants and the clues to direct my gaze, it took me about five minutes to find them. The caterpillars were the exact shade of green as the stems of the lily’s leaves. One caterpillar paralleled the stem, its body mimicking the gentle curve. Another grasped the underside of the leaf with its front legs then stuck its rigid body at a 45-degree angle.

Masters of disguise, these caterpillars are two of many creatures that use camouflage to survive. Survival in the natural world essentially comes down to finding food and avoiding becoming food. When we think of camouflage, we usually think of the strategy of crypsis. It is defined as using coloring to make an object or animal difficult to see. It is blending into the background. Hiding in plain sight.

This is the strategy of the Eastern Screech Owl, whose gray feathers blend in with the gray of the tree it sleeps in or on during the day. Or of the weasels that are chocolate brown in the summer, but in areas that get snow, turn white for the winter. Or of the green frog that sits quietly among the green plants of the pond. Or of the Ruffed Grouse whose varied feathers help it hide itself among the forest floor.

Killdeer eggs disguised to look like rocks on the ground. Photo by Jeff Tome

There are many other methods of camouflage. For example, some animals disguise themselves as something else. This is a method of camouflage called mimesis. The walking stick insect is effectively hidden among the twigs of trees because they take on the appearance of a stick. The Eastern Comma butterfly looks remarkably like a dead leaf when its wings are folded. The caterpillars in my garden among the lilies were doing their best to look like a leaf stem. Camouflage is designed to confuse and to trick the eye.

I couldn’t precisely identify the caterpillar in my garden. Not down to genus or species. I could only narrow it down to the family level. It was in the family Geometridae, also known as looper moths. It was easy to place because of the arrangement of its legs. These caterpillars only have two or three pairs of prolegs near their hind end. They don’t have the five pair of suction cup like prolegs of other caterpillars. Missing prolegs in the middle of its body, they crawl along in a particular fashion. They hold on with their back prolegs, extend their bodies forward, and pull their hind ends up to meet the front. This way of walking earns these critters the very descriptive name of inchworms. To avoid being eaten by hungry forest birds, they take on the coloring of sticks, twigs, leaf stems, or leaves. Their disguises would most certainly win first prize in any camouflage contest.

The concept of camouflage makes me think of how we see the natural world. We think our eyes tell us the truth and allow us to see. But not everyone sees in the same way. Our eyes are sensors that pick up light reflected off objects. It takes our brains to make sense of that object. To recognize the shape, the color, the pattern. To give the object meaning. This happens so quickly, so smoothly, we hardly think about it. It takes certain moments, like the one I had in the garden, to become very aware of the connection between our eyes and our brains. We can also feel that connection when we look at optical illusions — a visual image designed in such a way as to confuse; to change the way we perceive an image. A common illusion is a sketch of a woman. Hold the image in one direction, it looks like an old woman. Flip the image over and it looks like a young woman.

In the natural world, seeing is a skill that takes practice and knowledge. To the untrained, unfamiliar eye the natural world may look like a sea of green. The trained eye of a forester, biologist, hunter, or animal tracker would see more. They may see an ecosystem that is healthy or unhealthy. Plants that are native or non-native. Places where animals have eaten, slept, walked. This kind of seeing is all about recognizing patterns. They know the plants and animals as well as how they work together, what should be there, and what is out of place.

I wonder how many things are hidden in plain sight in front of me. Of all the things I see, there is more waiting to be revealed. Seeing those caterpillars and doing a little research about them broadened my gaze.

It gave me another pattern to look for the next time I go out. To look for the shape of their body sticking out rigid from a stem. Or a twig that looks a little bit different and is not a twig at all. And this allows me to see more without traveling anywhere new. And the more you look, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the more you can make sense of the next time you adventure out in the natural world.

Katie Finch is a nature educator at Audubon.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling 569-2345.

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