Student Challenge Awards Program




Diversity and Natural Defense of Desert Caterpillars


Earthwatch Institute JUNE 2007


In fall of 2006, these amazingly talented, devilishly attractive, funny, awesome students applied for a spot on a SCAP research expedition.  A few months later, we were notified that we had made it through the first selection process but that the number of people still had to be cut in half.  Luckily, we all made it, and were able to form the best SCAP team yet, The Earthwatch Heroes.  We were sent to Portal, Arizona to study the diversity, enemies, and natural defenses of desert caterpillars.  And so it began…


Project Details


Dates: June 15th 2007 to June 28th 2007

Location:  SWRS, Portal, Arizona.

Environment: Sky Islands, Desert Mountains, lower elevation desert valleys. 2000-9000 feet elevation.


Project Objectives


-To document diversity of Lepidoptera species in diverse environment of southern Arizona.

- To study tri trophic interactions between host plants, Lepidoptera, and their various parasitoids.

- To study immune system reactions of Lepidoptera to parasitoids in relation to diet and host plant toxicity.





Lee (Mysterio)

Professor at Tulane University



Home State: Louisiana, originally from England

            Hobbies: Playing violin, art, music, reading

            Favorite Caterpillar: Eois (Geometridae)

            What do you do? Graduate student at Tulane University



Home State: NY

Hobbies: Dancing to live music, riding my bike around New Orleans, learning to cook new vegetarian meals, exploring nature

Favorite Caterpillar: Camouflaged looper – Synchlora aerate.  These cute Geometridae are in costume for much of their larval phase; masquerading as flowers and other plant parts

            What do you do? Graduate student at Tulane University




Brittany Davies

            Home State: Michigan!!

            Hobbies: Art of all sorts, hanging out, volunteering, acting like a kid

            Favorite Caterpillar: Noctuidae only because no one else likes them.


Eric Freeze

            Home State: New Mexico

Hobbies: Caving ha ha fun fun, and hiking, and playing games… I like e monopoly, and I don’t like swimming, but I do like canoeing.

            Favorite Caterpillar: I love them all!


Tom Quigley

            Home State: New Hampshire

            Hobbies: skiing, guitar, ping pong, rocking out, neck bush

            Favorite Caterpillar: Saturniidae


Kaiti Tasker

            Home State: Oregon

Hobbies: Swimming, scuba, and everything with water, drawing, listening to music, hanging with friends, goffing around

            Favorite Caterpillar: Synchlora


Bart Van Der Puy

            Home state: Wisconsin

            Hobbies: Music, Water, Drawing, Friends, Grinning

            Favorite Caterpillar; Geometridae, of course.


Holden Weltner

            Home State: Pennsylvania

Hobbies: Running, Playing and listening to music, driving around, and hanging out with my friends.

            Favorite Caterpillar: Arctiidae




Summary of Daily Projects: Journal Excerpts


June 15 – Arrival, Ice Breakers, attunement

June 16 – 1st Field day (Mt. Lemmon)

June 17 – SWRS arrival

June 18 – Blacklighting

June 19 – Heidi presentation

June 20 – Bat cave

June 21 – Free Day hike

June 22 – 30+ caterpillar collection

June 23 – Lime Cave

June 24 – Caterpillar Surgery

June 25 –Cave presentation

June 26 –Bonfire

June 27 – Pirates of the Caribbean!

June 28- Departure, goodbyes


            Caterpillars are sweet! After several days, the tiny insects seem to peak our interests. In some way Lepidoptera are better than Christmas. They entrance us with erratic patterns, odd habits, shape, color, and rhythmic motion. The majority of our findings have been in plots. Although, we have captured caterpillars through general collection, premeditated discovery, and even phone booths! Plots require GPS, nets, beat sticks, a foliage count, coordinate markers, plastic baggies and 3-4 pairs of eyes. Back at the station, we rear and document the caterpillars. The master copy of an excel worksheet document research done by past scientists; this history continues to re-juice our attention.



June 15— We dine at a Mexican restaurant, Lee’s 1st talk, meeting each other

            Our favorite memory- Meeting in the airport


The official quote:

 “Today was more like a trip to another planet than a migration in my own state. I have never been west, or to the desert. I encountered things that I had seen on television but never in real life. Saguaro cacti rose far above my head, and dotted the hillside in place of the pines and firs that I am so used to from New Hampshire.” Sir Thomas Merick Quigley, of New Hampshire.


June 16— We dine at a Mexican restaurant, Lee presentation in lobby,4 plots on mount Lemmon,  Cactus forests, Desert Museum  

Our favorite memory- Desert Museum



June 17 – Zoo introduction and practice Dine at SWRS, SWRS arrival

            Our favorite memory— Cranium



June 18 – Blacklighting, handstands, killjar, rave

            Our favorite memory --- “I am mysterio?” –Lee Dyer




June 19 – Soccer, Heidi and Differential Parasitism of a Specialist Caterpillar between two Tropical Forests and Related Host Plants, Portal, General collection,

            Our favorite memory – General collection



June 20 –  Lee’s Campground mountain climb, 2 plots at summit of climb, bat cave, group photo, Zoo!, Frisbee, drawing! Yaaayyy!!!

            Our favorite memory—Bat Cave!


We learned the true meaning of outback today. We went climbing over boulders up a mountainside and got to check out a cool cave, which apparently used to be home to some mountain lions, along the way. We did plots on the sides of mountains, but they were a little disappointing since we only found one caterpillar, but the journey to get to the plots made it all worth it. 

Preference was given to zoo in preparation of the approaching Free Day. Tasks included cleaning, photography, labeling, and plant identification. Plant identification threw Earth Watch teammates for a loop while others excelled at the task. In addition, Eric, Heidi and Brittany made ringer solution and dyed beads red and in two days, we will inject the caterpillars with the red beads to learn more about their immune response to parasitoids. It was another work day, but we always have so much fun that it really doesn’t seem like work. Psstt…Tom got tampon’d!



June 21 -- Free Day!, Hiking, Funky rocks, water, Sing song walking, Drawing!, cell phone reception  

            Our favorite memory—Lunch




June 22 – 30 plus caterpillars found near station, Finally Eric is AWAKE! He busts out a computer camera and the group uploads videos to facebook, caterpillar surgery, pupating caterpillar

            Our favorite memory – filming the station


A morning in the life of Bart:

            “It is breakfast time. Soon it is apparent that the teams will plot at SWRS. After breakfast Bart falls asleep because he is wiped. Bart gathers plastic baggies, mp3 player, and beating tools. 20 minutes into the plot, Eric catching 5 geo’s in a net. Ca-ching! Bart powers down the mp3 player and the chore has his full attention.”



June 23 – Lime Caves, Under my Umbrella…, THE THING, Kubla Khan, Mitch Hedburg

            Our favorite memory – Cell phone reception and car ride sing along



June 24 – Caterpillar surgery, Eric’s cave presentation, funky toilets, techno phone jams

            Our favorite memory— Zoo and Surgery!



June 25 – praying mantises, night collecting, blinding Brittany, Ben’s broken foot, Bart falls over a yucca

            Our favorite memory – night collecting in the full moon


June 26 –volunteer bonfire, caterpillar dissection, lame jokes

            Our favorite memory – the sun spider scaring Holden


June 27 –

            Our favorite memory –



June 28

            Our favorite memory – Saying goodbye to all our new friends.