The Very Hungry Caterpillar

 This is a summary of my research into The Very Hungry Caterpillar (hereafter VHC), by Eric Carle.

Green caterpillars with red heads

The rosy maple moth caterpillar, Dryocampa rubicunda, also known as the greenstriped maple worm, is my best guess as to the caterpillar being depicted in the book. It has a green body, red head, and two black tentacles on the segment behind the head, which somewhat resemble the "antennae" that seem to be present on the VHC. It also lays its eggs on leaves, prefers to eat leaves (although it prefers Maple leaves to the lanceolate leaf forms depicted), and has a pupa that resembles the "cocoon" depicted.

The VHC however, also has three prominent spots on its head. (On some caterpillars, eyespots are used to resemble snakes, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.) The silver-spotted Skipper, Epargyreus clarus, has yellow eyespots on a red head. The common Awl, Hasora badra, has three spots located in approximately the correct positions. 

Rosy maple moth caterpillar or greenstriped maple worm

Rosy maple moth

silver spotted skipper caterpillar
common awl caterpillar

Cocoon vs Chrysalis

Technically, a moth caterpillar may create a cocoon out of silk, while a butterfly caterpillar sheds its skin for a final time to reveal a hard skin underneath known as a chrysalis. Other caterpillars are naked pupae without a casing, and still others use silk to form a shelter from a leaf. Case moths use sticks on the outside of their cocoon, and there are more exotic varieties. 

The cocoon shown in the book does not resemble a chrysalis, which is dominated by the form of the wrapped wings. What it most closely resembles is a naked pupa without a cocoon. It is possible that Carle is depicting the pupa inside the cocoon without making this clear to the reader.

Some few butterflies do form cocoons, and in common usage a chrysalis is often called a cocoon.

monarch butterfly chrysalis
moth cocoon
rosy maple moth pupa
VHC cocoon


The VHC is omnivorous, eating mainly fruit, but also meat, candy, and other processed human foods. (It is difficult to know how the VHC was able to obtain access to this food -- Was a picnic interrupted by some kind of unspeakable tragedy?) However, it appears that the VHC thrives best when provided with a diet of leaves. Most species of caterpillars prefer to stick to a particular food, such as a single kind of leaf. Many carnivorous caterpillars are found in Hawaii. There are several species of caterpillar whose common name includes the word "omnivorous" such as the omnivorous Looper and the omnivorous Leafroller.

This leaf unrolled to show a row of holes


The depiction of the butterfly on the last page of the book is particularly problematic. First is the question of whether this is actually a butterfly (as Carle asserts) and not a moth (as most of the caterpillars described above are actually moths). The shape of the antennae tends to support the butterfly hypothesis, but no mouth parts are visible, and the legs seem to hang below the abdomen in a very implausible way, making identification difficult.

The wings are even less help. The VHC hindwings are significantly broader than the forewings, leading to an "upside-down" appearance. The VHC butterfly has four prominent eyespots, one on each wing. This resembles the European peacock butterfly, Aglais io. However, the coloration and wing morphology are very different. The wings are somewhat asymmetric, raising the possibility that the butterfly depicted is some kind of mutation.

VHC butterfly

VHC butterfly with wings flipped


European peacock butterfly


heather said…
Thank you for doing the research I always wanted, but never wanted to do myself.
tpmotd said…
The shape of the wings drives me crazy as a grown up, but my kids have never mentioned it.

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