When I salvaged the caterpillars we'd hatched, this guy came in with us on the hollyhock I dug up from the strawberry bed. It's lovely, isn't it? It looks nothing like our butterfly garden Painted Lady caterpillars we got in the mail. And it's far bigger than any of the caterpillars we'd hatched ourselves, even the first batch. So we've got a mystery guest.
I'm not obsessed with this caterpillar. Or with the whole butterfly project. Really, I'm not. So what if I dig weeds out of the garden and plant them for the caterpillars? So what if I've named the mystery caterpillar? So what if I spent almost an hour last night looking at caterpillar pictures trying to figure out exactly what kind of caterpillar Jim might be? One of the most fun things about homeschooling is that I can share my obsessions, er, interests with my children. I'm having fun, and they're tagging along. So much for a child-led education. Seriously, I don't wholly believe in a one-hundred-percent child-led education. I do believe in a family-centered, interest-based education. Share and share alike. I take time to learn about farts (oh yes I did, and if you're lucky I'll remember to share some day) and do math with Legos and teach them about owls or wolves because those are their interests. And I share my interests with them too. When they see me following a project more deeply they learn that learning isn't always imposed by Mom, nor does it have to be completely motivated purely by their own interests. They see that even adults like to learn new things. It's not so much that they're learning about caterpillars, it's more about learning as a challenge, as a joy, as a lifestyle.
Or so I tell myself because it makes me feel better about naming the caterpillar Jim and calling him a "he." Look at him all curled up on his leaf. Ain't he cute? It's likely (after poring over hundreds of pictures) that Jim is a member of the Nymphalidae, or Brushfooted Butterflies, Family. (Pictures here at Bug Guide.) He looks an awful lot like some of the Painted Lady caterpillars in the pictures, except they don't have those bright yellow bits. But caterpillars change each time they molt, so I think we'll just have to see who he is when he emerges from his chrysalid to be sure.
Caterpillar Identification Fun (for the obsessive or those who simply have to know):
What's This North American Caterpillar? Caterpillar pictures are divided by appearance: horny or spiny, smooth or bumpy, and hawk, or Sphinx, moths. There are also links to information about raising caterpillars and a caterpillar glossary.
Bug Guide. It's not the easiest to navigate, but it's got lots of pictures and information. This is the site where I finally made a positive identification of the jumping spider that the fine young gents found in the back yard. It had bright blue fangs and several beady black eyes . And they wanted to keep as a pet. Shudder. As a favor to those of you with spider phobias, I won't post a picture. Back to butterflies-- the Bug Guide butterfly page is here. If you click on the "Images" tab at the top of the butterfly section (or click over to the caterpillar page) you can see hundreds of pictures of butterflies or caterpillars. If you're obsessive, you can pore of the hundreds of pictures until you find one that matches your caterpillar or butterfly then click on the picture and it will tell you what you've found. Pictures are divided by species, which makes it a bit easier.
This site has a neat interactive caterpillar guide. Check the characteristics of your caterpillar and you'll get a list of the most likely suspects.
Caterpillars of the Pacific Northwest. Caterpillar information that will satisfy the scientist in you. This site is very thorough and informative, and includes information on caterpillar morphology, caterpillar ecology, and raising and handling caterpillars.
If you know the scientific name of the caterpillar's host plant, you can try looking it up at this site, HOSTS - a Database of the World's Lepidopteran Hostplants.
As a last resort, I may try What's That Bug? These lovely folk will actually look at bug pictures people email and try to figure out what it is you've found in your garden or your bathtub or your hair or whatnot. If you're interested in bugs, check out the links on the side: Bug Love (mating bugs), Carnage (bugs eating bugs), or Bug Links.