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

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Killer caterpillar with ‘sting’ in its tail

by

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.1

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,2 and spiders which are predominantly herbivorous.3 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 parrot4 and the Galápagos vampire finch.5 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.6 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.7

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/vampirefinchReturn 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.

Readers’ comments

Dee M.
how does an organism switch from a diet of digesting plant fibers and plant sugars to one replaced with insect bodies and fluids?
Joel Tay
A simple explanation is exaptation. Exaptation is the idea that the same type of body parts can be used for a variety of purposes. For example, the same sharp teeth of a polar bear for tearing into seals are also present in sun bears, which are predominantly herbivorous. Proteins is still proteins regardless of whether it is from plants or meat. The same digestive juices will digest both. And as we have pointed out in numerous articles on our website, creatures can often switch their diet when there is a need to.
Leo W.
Do these creatures have stingers like bees, ants, and wasps? How can you say bees ants and wasps are not related when they are the only ones that have pointy stingers? According to wiki only bees ants wasps have stingers on their back end. The scorpion stinger is completely different than the other three stingers. Also I have noticed many flaws in this website pertaining evidence you use to support the Bible like the Ipuwer Papyrus. You know that is not good evidence right?
Joel Tay
We did not mention bees, ants or wasp anywhere in this article, so I do not know where you are getting all this from—certainly not from this article. Second, you mentioned flaws on this website used to support the Bible but you never demonstrated where we err. You know that is not good evidence right?
Courtney K.
You know, if Creationism, Crispr, and conservation combined, I feel like cataloging the DNA and epigenetics of species would allow for reintroducing genetic diversity... But the mindset is everything. Who would have predicted that the narwhal could interbreed with other whales? If two species can hybridize, then I wonder, if you have a ton of DNA and epigenetics in a database, that genetic diversity could be readded back into endangered populations, but also recover extinct species with very similar relatives (like the Asiatic lion being genetically engineered from an African lion, or recreating extinct species of rhino from still alive species). This has technically already been done before, but the current hybridization data is worrying because there are too many surprises... Based on the starting point, evolution (not natural selection).

You might also be interested in Dr Robert Carter's article, Mammoth clones, which address the issue of cloning extinct creatures.
Joel Tay
Good question. Who could have predicted that the narwhal could interbreed with other whales? Certainly not the evolutionists, for it caught them by surprise (as we pointed out in The surprising ‘belwhal’). However, this is not a surprise for the creationist since rapid diversification and speciation within the biblical kind is taught in the Bible. Rapid speciation is an important part of the creation model. We have often showed on a number of articles on our website how hybridization demonstrate that these these creatures came from the same ancestral pair on board the Ark, and rapidly diversify according to its kind.

As taught in the Bible:

Genesis 47:17—So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year.

Here, horses and donkeys are from the same kind and can hybridize, yet by the the time of writing, Joseph would have been close to 600 years after the flood, and they have already diversified enough to be differentiated from one another.

Genesis 30:32—let me [i.e. Jacob] pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages.

In this case, written around 500+ years after the flood, Sheep and goats, have already diversified from the original Tsoan kind on board the Ark.

Genesis 15:8–9— But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”

Goat and sheep; turtledove and young pigeon. Abraham was born 352 years after the flood. Gen. 15 occurred when he was 75 years old. ~427 years after the flood. These creatures again diversified rapidly.

Job 39:5; 19— 5 “Who has let the wild donkey go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift donkey”… 19 “Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with a mane?”

Again, the horse and the wild donkey. The same kind, yet rapid diversification.

The same goes with the cats, where we can hybrid lions with tigers to get a fertile hybrid (liger), which can then go on to interbreed with a lion again to get a liliger.

Evolution? No. This is exactly as we expect as part of biblical creation and nicely modeled by the creationist orchard. Rapid speciation is an important part of the creation model.
Geoff C. W.
And they are still caterpillars.
Leo W.
My point was that ants, bees, and wasps must be related because they are the only creatures with similar stingers and similar behaviors. The problem was that they are the only insects with stingers on the tail. I was asking if the catapillar or other type of insect might have had one. There seems to be no other insect except these there that have stingers on their tail which likely makes them related. Also a long time ago, on the article mentioning the Ipuwer Papyrus, you use to use it as evidence, until someone in the comments who was an Egyptologist pointed out that it was wrong. The papyrus was not evidence of the Exodus and was used by you guys even as recent as last year as evidence. Thus showing that you guys are unaware of arguements against certain things that have already been known to many others and a simple internet search would show you that your evidence for Christianity is not always accurate. It is hard to trust everything you guys write on..
Joel Tay
Lita Cosner has written an article on Wasp, and has even pointed out that: "Wasps belong to the insect order Hymenoptera (Greek: membrane wing), which includes ants and bees. There are about 30,000 identified species of wasp." So yes, there is indeed the possibility that they may be from the same kind. I fail to see why you would think that we deny that ants and wasps are from the same created kind. (In your original comment, you accused us: "How can you say bees ants and wasps are not related when they are the only ones that have pointy stingers".).

Second, caterpillars are quite different from the ants/wasp kind. They do not have stingers the way wasps have them. Rather, as we have stated in the article here, these caterpillars already have sharp setae (body bristles) and claws, and we know that the recent switch in diet is very likely a recent modified phenomenon. As stated in the article, "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." The sharp sting here, is therefore a re-purposing or an example of exaptation, where the creatures uses the same tools for another purpose. There is no evolution here: "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."

It might also be helpful to note that the Bible does not say that God only made two of each kind of insect at the beginning (unlike humans, which started with only Adam and Eve). That is, there could have been thousands of wasp kind at the very beginning from the same wasp kind, with a rich genetic diversity—all with the ability to interbreed or adapt to various ecological zones. Unlike the land and flying creatures which were taken on board the Ark, and which would have been reduced to two of each kind (and seven pairs of the clean animals), insects would be able to survive outside the ark on floating debris. Thus, the amount of diversity among insects is going to be different from the amount of diversity present in Ark creatures—land and flying animals that breathe air through their nostrils. Creatures on board the ark would experience a far greater popular bottleneck compared to fish or insects.

As for the Ipuwer Papyrus, you claim that we have used this to support the Exodus in an article last year, but I am unable to locate an article dated last year that claims that this is the case. In fact, in an article published last year in Journal of Creation 32:1, 2018, entitled, Perspectives on ancient chronology and the Old Testament–part 2, by Murray Adamthwaite, it says concerning the Ipuwer papyrus that:

"As stated, one should refrain from appeal to this text in regard to the plagues".

And in the 2004 article, The Ten Plagues of Egypt, we included an update in the article saying, "[Update: we now caution against using the Leiden papyrus as evidence, for reasons explained by Patrick Clarke below. He is known to us as very knowledgeable on Egyptology and a staunch biblical creationist. We thought it sound at the time, and have left this box in this web version of the Creation magazine article for posterity.]"

In the comment section of that same article, we also published Patrick Clarke's comments, dated February 21st, 2012 where he goes into even more detail why we should not use the Ipuwer Papyrus as proof of the exodus. The Ipuwer Papyrus is at best circumstantial evidence, and we have explicitly discouraged the use of the Papyrus as proof of the Exodus as already demonstrated.

So once again, you got it completely upside down. You set up a strawman argument and then accuse us of teaching the very things we have already denied in writing. I would urge you to be more careful in your reading/research rather than just lifting things off the skeptical websites without due research. It is hard to trust everything these websites write about.

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