Caterpillar Encounters

What was the strangest thing I saw while trekking through the trees? Tent caterpillars.

The “tent” of the tent caterpillars in a box elder maple tree.
Tent caterpillars in the Trinity Forest were seen in clusters like this almost exclusively on ash trees.
Tent caterpillars in the Trinity Forest were seen in clusters like this almost exclusively on ash trees

Wait, you might think caterpillars are just a normal nature thing. Of course there are caterpillars in a forest. But no, these crawling critters are weird. First, just their sheer numbers are unnerving. They got everywhere- on my measuring tape, on my shoes, on my clothes… I was picking caterpillars out of my shirt even as I drove home. But their behavior was most bizarre. They formed oval clusters on trees, but only the ash trees. I don’t know why they do this. It gets weirder when I saw clusters of dead caterpillars. They appeared dried up. Why would they gather together to waste away?

The video below shows you this bizarre behavior.

In Spring 2014, my field partner Shannon and I saw these caterpillars everywhere in the Trinity River Audubon Center forest. But when we returned to our home, Southern Methodist University campus, we were safe.

It’s now Spring 2015 and the caterpillars are back in the forest. But now they’re also on SMU campus!

smu caterpillar
Caterpillar on SMU sidewalk

In my four years on SMU’s manicured campus of landscaping perfection, I have never seen these caterpillars. They are few and far between at SMU… but it’s still unusual, bewildering, and I think these critters are weird.

Although they weird me out and many people consider tent caterpillars to be pests, I think it’s important to understand that they are part of our ecosystem too. For more info on what likes to these caterpillars and their ecological role, check out this website.


2 thoughts on “Caterpillar Encounters

    1. I think bugs just have natural boom/bust cycles. But I’m not very sure! I’m also very curious whether they’re gonna “boom” more before they bust again. It’d be quite the sight to see SMU covered in caterpillars.


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