With more than 120,000 known species around the world, the beauty and variety of caterpillars is astounding. New Englander Samuel Jaffe has taken his lifelong love of caterpillars to a new level, dedicating the last several years to researching, photographing, and educating the public about these intriguing creatures.
In 2008, Jaffe took up the rearing of caterpillars he’d enjoyed as a child, and documented his work with incredible photographs of the caterpillars of New England. Whether showing off their stunning coloration or their ability to mimic their surroundings, each caterpillar is shown munching on the plant of its choice, offset by a neutral black background.
“As a photographer, caterpillars intrigue me as subjects because of their unbelievable defensive adaptations,” Jaffe tells My Modern Met. “Many are unmatched mimics of the leaves and twigs of their host plants. Some mimic other creatures like snakes and spiders that may be threatening to their predators. Others might look like bird poop, galls, or detritus. Many caterpillars also perform bizarre defensive dances, have inflatable horns, bright warning colors, or other surprises. Caterpillars are unmatched tricksters and I love capturing and describing these survival strategies in a single photograph.”
After much success exhibiting his photographs, he began organizing exhibitions and workshops in order to educate the public about caterpillars. This passion transformed into The Caterpillar Lab, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness about the diversity of New England caterpillars. Too often caterpillars are seen as pests, but thanks to Jaffe and the work of The Caterpillar Lab, people are realizing how vital they are to the environment.
Interestingly, according to Jaffe, one of the biggest misconceptions people have is that only butterfly caterpillars are interesting. Jaffe’s work certainly proves that not to be the case. “Butterflies are just a small group that fits within the much larger, and much more diverse group, of the moths. Moth caterpillars are often more dramatic, colorful, and strange than butterfly caterpillars and certainly, there are many many many more of them out there to explore.”
Through in-school programs, teacher training, and collaborations with organizations like the Boston Children’s Museum and Vermont Institute of Natural Science, Jaffe and the rest of the staff is helping the rest of the world fall in love with caterpillars, one species at a time.