This article is from
Creation 40(3):22–23, July 2018

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Killer caterpillar with ‘sting’ in its tail


Hawaiian-mothPhoto Resource Hawaii / Alamy stock photo

Carnivorous caterpillars are some of the more intriguing insects found in Hawaii. While there are more than a thousand species of Eupithecia moths worldwide, the caterpillars of only six of them—all found in Hawaii—are known to be carnivorous.

These caterpillars attach one end of themselves to the surface of a plant and lie in ambush. When an unsuspecting insect comes along and brushes against the bristles on the lower half of the caterpillar’s body, it instinctively whips around and catches its prey with its claw-like ‘legs’.

These caterpillars have sharp setae (body bristles) and claws that allow them to pierce their victim’s exoskeleton, and even relatively ‘dangerous’ creatures like wasps and spiders can become a meal. The strike, which only takes about 1/12 of a second, is triggered by physical contact, not sight, so the caterpillar can carry out its ambush even in complete darkness.

Caterpillars are the larval form of the flying insect group known as the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). While there are a handful of other predatory caterpillars found elsewhere in the world, these ‘graze’ on more passive insects such as aphids. In contrast, the carnivorous caterpillars of Hawaii possess structural and behavioural characteristics that allow them to aggressively ‘strike’ and catch their prey.

So is this ‘killer’ behaviour in carnivorous caterpillars, with its seemingly designed features, problematic for biblical creation? In brief, no. Creation magazine has previously published articles on spiders which eat pollen,1 and spiders which are predominantly herbivorous.2 These explained how an originally herbivorous creature might become carnivorous over time in the biblical Creation/Fall scenario.

Insects likely not nephesh life

But in any case, the biblical absence of death pre-Fall involves sentient creatures, i.e. nephesh chayyah (‘living creatures’), capable of pain and suffering. Plants are alive in a biological sense, but by biblical definition they are not nephesh chayyah, hence their ‘death’ pre-Fall (e.g. from being eaten by animals) is a non-issue. Insects are very likely also not examples of nephesh life, since they do not appear to be capable of suffering, self-awareness, etc. (a dragonfly can even eat its own abdomen without apparent discomfort). So even if some insects were originally designed to attack and eat other insects, that would not be inconsistent with biblical creation.

Nonetheless, we can deduce that the ancestors of these caterpillars probably did not originally capture live prey. The vast majority of all Eupithecia caterpillars are not carnivorous, and the few that are, are confined to the Hawaiian Islands. Even among these, two of the six species still feed predominantly on plant material. All this suggests their carnivory is a rather recent adaptation occurring within a small isolated population of Eupithecia.

Photo Resource Hawaii / Alamy stock photokiller-caterpillar
A ‘killer caterpillar’, the larva of the Hawaiian moth Eupithecia niphoreas, eating a long-legged fly of the family Dolichopodidae.

Herbivore to carnivore—seen today

Creatures that are definitely ‘nephesh’ have been observed turning to carnivory in modern times—for example, the kea parrot3 and the Galápagos vampire finch.4 We have also previously written about the evidence that the ancestor of the piranha fish was herbivorous, as its close cousin, the pacu fish, still is.5 So it is not surprising that a herbivorous caterpillar could have turned to a carnivorous diet. But is such a change in diet or behaviour enough to warrant the label ‘evolution’?

Bacteria-to-man evolution would require a mechanism that produces or generates tremendous amounts of new genetic information, giving rise to new, often immensely complex structures and functions. But in many cases where animals have turned from one food source to another, what is involved is a move in the opposite direction. Genetic degeneration over time, through mutations (genetic copying mistakes, which often cause loss and damage to the genome), can cause animals to behave in radically different ways. For example, mutations may result in animals losing the ability to synthetize certain essential nutrients from ingested plant material. Hence in order to survive, they may have to prey on other animals to get those nutrients. Similarly, the curse on the ground (Genesis 3:17–18) may have caused some plants to lose nutritional value so that animals that depend on them now have to turn to preying on other animals to make up for the loss in nutrition. In the case of the piranha, an increased competition for aquatic vegetation in South American river systems, aided by genetic loss mutations that affected the development of its teeth, could have turned piranhas to carnivory in order to survive. Such degenerative mechanisms are the opposite of bacteria-to-man evolution, and are consistent with what we would expect in a post-Fall world.

How did the ‘snap-trap’ behaviour arise?

But how do we explain the ‘attack’ structures and snapping behaviour of the carnivorous caterpillar that appear to have been designed for that very purpose? Is there evidence that these previously served a different function? In fact, the distinctive ‘snapping’ function used to prey on other insects has also been observed in other, non-carnivorous, Eupithecia caterpillars—as a defensive mechanism. Thus it appears to have been designed for another purpose, and this shift to predation is a modified behaviour based on pre-existing bodily structures and instincts. It would not take much for some Eupithecia caterpillars to have fallen into carnivory, and selection would have then favoured the stiffest and sharpest bristles, for example. It certainly would not require some radical new structure or function to arise worthy of being called an example of evolution.

What we observe, then, is entirely consistent with the biblical creation model. The caterpillars have departed from a previous dietary behaviour with only slight modifications needed to existing structures once used for a different purpose. Whether or not the caterpillars are truly alive in the biblical sense (we would suggest not), this is one more example of creatures making such a shift away from exclusive herbivory—without any real evolution. It thus illustrates one of the several possible ways for carnivory to have entered a previously ‘very good’ world.6

Posted on homepage: 23 September 2019

References and notes

  1. Pollen-eating spiders, Creation 22(3):5–7, June 2000; creation.com/focus-223. Return to text.
  2. Catchpoole, D., Vegetarian spider, Creation 31(4):46, September 2009; creation.com/vegetarian-spider. Return to text.
  3. Weston, P., Air attack, Creation 27(1):28–32, December 2004; creation.com/air-attackReturn to text.
  4. Catchpoole, D., Vampire finches of the Galápagos, Creation 29(3):52–53, June 2007; creation.com/vampire-finches-of-the-galapagosReturn to text.
  5. Catchpoole, D., Piranha, Creation 22(4):20–23, September 2000; creation.com/piranha. Return to text.
  6. For a detailed discussion, see Chapter 6, ‘How did bad things come about?’ in Batten, D. (ed.), The Creation Answers Book, CBP, Powder Springs, GA.; creation.com/cab6. Return to text.