The woolly bear caterpillar does not need the warmth, like the flowers, to kick-start its spring. It’s always the first insect to appear after the snow retreats. And the story of how it does so is truly astonishing.

At the start of spring, the woolly bear caterpillar eats as fast as it can, as indeed it must, for this far north, the season will be brief.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar
Woolly Bear Caterpillar

The days shorten only too soon, but the woolly bear caterpillar has not yet got enough reserves to transform into a moth.

Life in the Deep Freeze

It can’t leave the Arctic, for it can’t fly, so it settles down beneath a rock.

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The sun’s warmth rapidly dwindles. Beneath the rock, the caterpillar is out of the wind, but the cold penetrated deep into the ground.

Soon, its heart stops beating. It ceases to breathe, and its body starts to freeze; first its gut, then its blood.

Woolly Bear Cocoon
Woolly Bear Cocoon

The following spring. After four months of darkness, the Arctic begins to thaw.

And, the woolly bear caterpillar rises from the dead.

By the time the first shoots of willow appear in the early spring, the woolly bear is already eating.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

But no matter how fast the woolly bear eats, it will not have time to gather enough food this year either, and the cold closes in once again.

Woolly Bear Moth
Woolly Bear Moth

Year after year, the caterpillar slows down in the autumn and then freezes solid.

But, eventually a very special spring arrives. This one will be it’s last. It’s now 14 years old; the world’s oldest caterpillar.

Its remaining days now become frantic. It starts to weave a silk cocoon.

Inside, it’s body is metamorphosing into one that can fly and search, abilities that will be crucial in the days ahead.

It has waited over a decade for this spring. And, now its time is near.

All across the Arctic, moths are emerging. After completing their 14-year preparation, they now have just a few days to find a partner and mate.

No life illustrates more vividly the shortness of the Arctic spring or the struggle to survive in this most seasonal of places. The Woolly Bear Caterpillar is not the only thing suspended in the cold winter months. The Spring Thaw heralds the release of millions of tonnes of water that has been frozen all season.

While the woolly bear caterpillar is not the only fantastic creature to make an appearance on this blog. The coelacanth is certainly the most ancient.

External Links

How the caterpillar survives the cold
Life cycle of woolly bear caterpillars

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