Caterpillars as big as a mountain are starving



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Above: An Ayepe-arenye (Yipirinya caterpillar) with head left, tail right.  Their background colours include tones of green, black and brown with the beautiful patterns consistent and distinctive. (This photo replaces a partial view.)

Words and pictures by Dr FIONA WALSH
A contribution to our Rest & Reflection series.
UPDATE, 20 January 2017: see below.
This article accompanies a Flickr photo album ‘Totemic Caterpillars and Mountains of Mparntwe (Alice Springs)
Are your children ‘caterpillar children’? Alice Springs has been described as caterpillar country. Why? Where are the caterpillars now?
p2402 Walsh tahl 350I have birthed two children in Alice Springs. In 1998, our first child was greeted by an Arrernte statesman, Wenten Rubuntja, “Hey, a baby! Ayepe-arenye boy that one. This is his country.” We were in the corridors of Central Land Council; he was the Chairman and I a staff person. But what did Mr Rubuntja mean? Traditional owners and the Arrernte dictionary tells us that Ayepe-arenye is the name for one totemic caterpillar. This is anglicised as Yeperenye or Yipirinya.
Right: My older ‘Yipirinya’ son looks toward Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap). The Ayepe-arenye (Yipirinya caterpillar) travels from near there to Anthwerrke (Emily Gap) in the east.
As our boy grew, I learnt about the caterpillars more by assimilation than deliberate intent. I gleaned snippets of their culture and ecology from key people like Arrernte women Veronica Dobson, Doris Stuart, Margaret Kemarre Turner; photographer and naturalist Mike Gillam; zoologists Ada Nano and Max Moulds; and curious colleagues and friends. Custodians talk about caterpillars in the CAAMA film ‘Mparntwe Sacred Sites’.
Alice Springs has a remarkable diversity of caterpillar icons. Aspects of caterpillars are revealed through things that represent them. Caterpillars are seen in names, photos, paintings and more. We go to Yeperenye Shopping Centre, we drive past Yipirinya School, we can read interpretive signs at the airport and parks, and Yipirinya moth forms inspired the design of shade structures in the Todd Mall. Where else do you see Yeperenye forms? In Australia, Alice is unique to have both a humble insect as an icon and to have icons so expressive of local Aboriginal cultures. But icons are an abstract way to learn about an animal; like knowing a dog from books rather than to pat or share a home with it.
My eldest Yeperenye son was three when we saw caterpillars brought to life at the magnificent Yeperenye Festival in 2001. Five giant puppet sculptures were each enlivened by about thirty children. Adult moths who stood taller than five men spread their wings by the main stage. Like caterpillars changing to moths, Arrernte men also metamorphosed to dance as the spotted Ayepe-arenye. Traditional owner Max Stuart narrated a little of the Altyerr or Creation stories “The caterpillars are coming. From Emily Gap, from Mt Zeil …” wherein Ayepe-arenye and Ntyalke clans converge on Alice Springs from east and west respectively. The ghastly battle between caterpillars and Ilperenye was enacted with caterpillars beheaded but surviving by force of numbers. The cycle of Arrernte creation revolved and was revitalised.
p2402 Walsh Veronica Doobson & FionaVeronica Dobson AM describes the sacred caterpillars which are plentiful after rain (ABC audio link). In Eastern Arrernte, three are spoken about: Ayepe-arenye, Ntyalke and Utnerrengatye; she also speaks of a fourth type of caterpillar. Veronica has a dog-eared album of caterpillar-related photos. Her neat mission handwriting on the back of one photo reads ‘the caterpillar that once was – Irkngeltye’. Her lament is one marker of a landscape that has profoundly changed.
Left: Dr Fiona Walsh with colleague & senior Arrernte woman, Veronica Dobson AM. 
Sometimes her family camped at a soak where Centralian College is now. Irkngeltye was once common on a plant that grew there. Veronica associates with Utnerrengatye as her father’s mother was responsible for that one. She emphasises she doesn’t ‘speak for’ the other three caterpillars despite her scholarly knowledge and distant family associations with them. Where are these caterpillars?
Arrernte people believe that ancestral beings including the four caterpillars and a carab beetle created parts of Tyerretye (Macdonnell Ranges) and certain gaps, rock piles, trees and woodlands in the Mparntwe (Alice Springs) region. One public account of the animal’s travels and associated sites is described in notes to accompany the stained glass within the Araluen gallery foyer. The window’s cathedral proportions suit the morals and characters symbolised. The travels and battles of these insects are at the scale of Hollywood dramas with the shape-shifting transformations of a Tolkien epic.
p2402 Walsh Range Google earth 660

Above: Two types of caterpillars manifest in the ranges and sites of Alice Springs region. Courtesy Google Earth.

The year of the Yeperenye Festival was also a year of high summer rainfall and plant growth. My son and his young playmates collected caterpillars on a bush block at Ilparpa. The owners were weeding the 10 hectares to allow native plants to flourish. The children’s ice-cream container was full of creatures with colour, pattern and softness. Delightful for children who like small and pretty things. We parents didn’t make much of a song or dance about these animals. We knew little but also knew stories grow with age. We supervised the careful return of caterpillars to the plants they feasted upon.
Then in 2005 our youngest son died unexpectedly.  Deep red Central Australian dirt fell by the spadeful on his coffin at the Alice Springs cemetery. That sacred site lies within view of the giant Ayepe-arenye who travels west from Anthwerrke (Emily Gap). The loss of my physical son sent me on an inward and outward search for his spirit. Where was the lost boy? This search opened my heart to the sense of landscape places being alive, animated by spirits and other beings. My eyes began to see more clearly how the ranges and the rock formations did indeed seem like giant caterpillars, giant beetles and other creatures. After years of searching, I came to feel my son was alive within a specific tree; our second Yipirinya boy was not a caterpillar.
Mparntwe native title holder Doris Stuart and colleagues intermittently offer a tour of Alice Springs sacred sites. The experience is a privilege with about 32 sites visited over two hours and within a 5km radius of the CBD. This town has the densest site concentration I’ve been introduced to in 31 years of work on desert Aboriginal lands. Alice includes places where Ayepe-arenye and Ntyalke caterpillar ancestors travelled, camped, danced and the moths laid their eggs. When I was on one tour, Doris’s voice was still tremulous with the pain of a deceit three decades earlier. On Christmas 1982, government road contractors had blasted away the tail of the Ntyalke on ‘Broken Promise Drive’ (aka Barrett Drive). The street name of the adjacent ‘Caterpillar Court’ is an ironic token to the travelling animal –  like the green goo a caterpillar spits on me. It is remarkable that Doris counters her mistrust by sharing so others can learn.
p2402 Walsh buffel 450A wider tragedy is unfolding too. “The Tar vine is disappearing. That’s what seems to be happening with lots of other plants around here too. The grubs live on the plants. The grubs gradually die out as there is no food source for them because of the Buffel grass.” (VP Dobson, 13 Jan 2016). Buffel and Couch grass displace Tar vine plants, the fodder preferred by Ayepe-arenye and Ntyalke who graze like cows. A tsunami of Buffel grass is drowning our native ecology and so the cultural ecology. It is likely that wildfire, climate changes and urban development affect caterpillar habitats too. The caterpillars are starving.
Above right: In the foreground some Tar vine surviving in a sea of Buffel grass. Together with Pigweed, Tar vine is the food plant for the caterpillars. While the caterpillar range endures the physical animals starve and are disappearing. 
These magnificent totemic beings can now only be found in their physical form on tiny parcels of uncolonised land or restored land and there only when conditions are right. On public lands, the voluntary efforts of Alice Springs Landcare workers are restoring the habitats vital to these animals. The restoration work of private landholders too is holding spaces for these beings.  If you walk this week at Spencer Hill, Ankerre Ankerre (Coolibah Swamp) or the eastern bank of the Todd between Wills Tce causeway and the Stott Tce bridge and elsewhere, look closely. It is likely you’ll see the caterpillars who metamorphose as moths, mountains or other guises.
For me, the piece by piece learning over decades accelerated after a move in 2011 to a typical suburban block. The land was smothered by the urbanest of Couch and Buffel grass. Veronica Dobson pointed out a few straggles of Ayepe or Tar vine and on them she spied caterpillars (below left). My own caterpillars to nurture! I’ve ploughed, dug and grubbed out all the weeds to allow native plants and smaller animals to flourish. There’s my deeper hope that others can learn about caterpillar characters so as to better respect our country.
p2402 Walsh tar vine 450Why does a tiny animal have this huge status for Arrernte people and so, for all of us? The mountain range-forms of Ntyalke and Apeye-arenye caterpillars are more than 200m high and 8km long. By contrast, their animal forms are less than 7cm. Caterpillars were valuable because desert people needed food. “In olden times, people used to get all the yeperenyes and prepare them [to eat] in a ceremonial way … they have a certain way to cook it up, gather them and put them in a coolamon [and] share it out with their families … they were tasty and fatty, more like prawns” (Rosie Furber in NTG n.d.).
At times, this treat is superabundant. Once the floodplains of Artepe Ulpaye (Todd River) were blanketed in tar vine pastures for caterpillars. Nowadays Arrernte protocols don’t allow caterpillars to be eaten due to their sacredness, scarcity and the availability of easier foods. World-wide, local cultures reify treasured foods so maybe this value is one source of the caterpillar’s status.
Custodians worry that caterpillars are rarely seen or recognised by most people of Alice Springs. Yet there are townsfolk who relate to the caterpillar beings. A print by Kelly-Anne Kenny in a 2014 ‘selfie’ series shows a modern girl astride a Yipirinya caterpillar and wearing her wings in moth form. Social scientist and Indigenous researcher, Dr Josie Douglas wrote that the portrait shows Kelly-Anne’s knowledge of “the ecological transformations of the Yipirinya caterpillar and also her identity as a young woman of Alice Springs and the significance of the Yipirinya in relationship to her self-identity”. Similarly, a young man and son of a prominent native title holder identifies as of the Yipirinya totem. However, it wasn’t until recently that he was introduced to the caterpillar in its physical form in a backyard at the Gap. People’s sense of belonging and connection are shaped by these animals.
p2402 Walsh Kelly Anne Kenny Yipirinya Dreaming Girl 2014 copyDoes the presence or absence of physical animals affect your sense of self? Where have you seen the physical caterpillars? What could we do to better care for them and our country?
Left: Kelly-anne Kenny’s ‘selfie’, Yipirinya Dreaming Girl, 2014. © Courtesy the artist.
This week, Ayepe-arenye and Ntyalke are again my favourite animals. Thousands of caterpillars graze and wriggle their way around my bush garden. I invite my friends to see them. I tippee-toe so as not to squash a single one. I weed to create spaces for the Tar vine. I tolerate its stickiness. I tease my friend whose chooks eat this magnificent totem. As I drive around town, I look for the places where caterpillars persist.
Today I asked my eighteen-year-old son who lives in Adelaide what the word ‘Yipirinya’ means to him. He spoke of the large metal sculpture at Araluen, the mountain range of Alice Springs and his mates who are Yipirinya kids. His tone was one of nostalgia – a longing for home.
p2402 Walsh caterpllars 450A more scientific than personal account of these four caterpillars is to be published in the Australian 2011- 2016 State of the Environment report or is available on request.
Right: Two of the totemic caterpillars. On the left, Ntyalke (Vine Hawk Moth) and on the right, Ayepe-arenye (White-lined Hawke Moth) in three colour forms.
Josie Douglas (2015), Kin and knowledge: The meaning and acquisition of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge to the lives of young Aboriginal people in Central Australia, PhD dissertation, Charles Darwin University.
The caterpillar characters of Central Australia correspond to four scientific taxa of Hawkmoth – the White-lined Hawk-moth, the Vine Hawk Moth, Coenotes eremophilae and probably the Convolvulus Hawk Moth. Ilperenye is the Stinky Beetle or Green Carab. Arrernte knowledge associates the caterpillars with different plants including two Boerhavia species, Emu bush, Ipomoea species and possibly Pink rock-wort.
UPDATE, 20 January 2017: The ‘caterpillar that once was’ sighted

p2402 Walsh lost caterpilar 450Following the publication of this article, a few things have arisen:


·      I have had several reports of ‘the caterpillar that once was’ Irkngeltye. It has been seen in Eastside gardens, the Alice Springs Community Garden and elsewhere.  It seems this Convolvulus moth, like Galahs and other urban-dwelling animals, can persist in town where there is Sweet potato, Morning glory and other plants of the Convolvulus family. Veronica Dobson confirmed the photo identifications and was pleased to hear it survives. 


·      Several readers have noted that the caterpillars do switch to feed on other plants including domestic ones like water lilies.


·  A linguist has clarified that the name Ayepe-arenye (‘Yipirinya’) derives from the stem word ‘Ayepe’ meaning Tar vine in Arrernte and ‘arenye’ translates as ‘belonging to’. This reflects the habitat and forage association between the Tar vine and the caterpillar. 


·      The four totemic caterpillars described in the above article are Hawk-moth caterpillars. They are in a different moth family to the Processionary caterpillars i.e. those hairy ones that follow each other in a single line, which are also known as ‘Itchy grubs’ as they can cause reactions including severe anaphylactic reactions. For more about Arrernte uses related to Processionary caterpillars see Figure 6.4 in ‘Indigenous Perspectives on Biodiversity’ a free download from


The photos (above & below) of  Irkngeltye were taken yesterday on a Morning glory plant growing in Eastside. 


p2402 Walsh lost caterpillars 660



  1. Fabulous article thanks Fiona. Makes me homesick.
    I can only imagine the buffel boom that’s taken place since the big rains.
    When will the government and pastoral industry do the right thing for the environment and control the buffel?

  2. What a lovely piece. Wouldn’t it be good if all those host plants were available from the local nurseries and there were schemes to encourage residents and businesses to plant them.

  3. Thanks Fiona, for a thought provoking and multi layered reflection on this place we are lucky enough to call home.

  4. Thank you Fiona for clarifying so many details about the types of moths and grubs, plants and localities.
    It has always delighted me to know that we live beside such big ranges, which represent such little creatures.
    I have always enjoyed knowing that the small and often overlooked creatures are the totemic ancestors for Alice Springs.
    It reminds us all that we must care for the smaller creatures lower down on the food chain.
    To be wealthy we learn to “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves” and in the natural world if we look after the grubs, moths and beetles and the plants they feed on, then we will have a healthier and more abundant natural landscape.
    I am lucky to have lots of tar vines in my garden, so I shall go and have a rummage around in them this evening and see if I have any yipirinyas.
    I have noticed different caterpillars over the last few days, often losing the battle against ants attacking them.
    I was delighted and saddened to read your article this morning, thank you so much for sharing your research with us.

  5. @ Myf (Posted January 18, 2017 at 6:41 am): There’s no need for these plant species to be sold at nurseries as, despite the encroachment of buffel and other exotic grass species, they remain ubiquitous in the local environment.
    For example, I live a short distance away from Geoff Mier’s Garden Solutions nursery which specialises in the propagation and sale of many local native plant species which otherwise are difficult to obtain; however, species such as tarvine and munyeroo (pig face – Portulaca oleraceae) are readily encountered on the footpaths and laneways within urban areas.
    Over several years I’ve taken advantage of conditions such as we’re experiencing now to uproot buffel grass, stinking lovegrass, caltrop prickles, thistles, wild turnip, soursob and other introduced weed species along the few metres of the backyard fence in the laneway at the rear of the property where I reside (occasionally I go a bit further).
    All native plant species (except prickles) are left alone to fend for themselves.
    The result now is that along the entire length of the public laneway where each side is dominated by buffel grass and other weeds, there’s about a 10 metre stretch adjacent to my home which currently features bluebells (Wahlenbergia species) and variable daisies (Brachycome ciliaris) in full bloom, plus tarvine and munyeroo (upon which both species of caterpillars have been feeding); also a compact form of ruby saltbush (Einadia nutans subspecies eremaea) which has spread from plants I’ve cultivated in my garden, and two native grass species (Brachiaria and Enneapogon) which produce easily accessible bird-attracting seeds. Occasionally I glimpse large skinks weaving their way through the foliage.
    These plants are able to flourish in this location despite being slashed or sprayed by council workers – all that is necessary on my part is to remain vigilant for the presence of new weeds germinating in this spot, which only requires a few minutes’ attention every so often.
    Once the initial weed control is achieved, the follow-up maintenance is not difficult, and the rapid recovery of native vegetation and response of wildlife is most gratifying, even in the most unlikely and limited of circumstances.

  6. Thoughtful story Fiona, beautifully wrapped in imagination, science, responsible living and love of country.

  7. Thanks Fiona
    This is another powerful story of the need for community engagement with the cultural and biological diversity that surrounds us. We will mourn for it if it disappears. From the article and comments above there is evidence that a small change in our behaviour will yield immediate results on many different levels. Changes to the legal status of Buffel Grass should recognise the many strains/cultivars of Buffel Grass and outlaw those types choking Alice Springs.

  8. Thanks, Fiona. Food for thought on food for caterpillars! I’ve been tiptoeing around the small patches of tarvine that have appeared in the garden, but have been less respectful of the larger green caterpillars munching through the morning glory (convolvulus) screen on the fence.

  9. Thank you Fiona. A beautiful and informative article. Your knowledge and ability to weave science, history, Aboriginal culture and your personal world, makes for engaging educative reading. I still feel delight when lucky enough to see a ‘goods train’ (as one of my kids called them) of caterpillars crossing the road, all joined together head to toe. It would so exciting for the boys to count how many were in each ‘string’; and I think that was how they made both sensory and cognitive connections about Aboriginal jukurrpa. They saw the line of caterpillars ‘reflected’ in the shape of the ranges, thus giving them something tangible to hold. Again thank you.

  10. The very generous and constructive comments are great. Thanks. A few suggested actions:
    – Recognize the four caterpillars and their host plants then tell others about them.
    – Enjoy and share the article, Flikr album and fun videos like this one sent to me
    – Adopt the ‘pennies for pounds’ concept that Linda proposed. Look after the small critters that make our land interesting and ecosystems function.
    – Let the caterpillars eat rather than spray, poison or kill them. The plants will regrow.
    – Clear parts of your land, garden and/or verge of Buffel and Couch grass and maintain as a native garden. It is likely native plants will flourish with rain and fade as it dries. As Alex wrote, native seeds and suckers recolonize remarkably quickly. Planting a few natives (as Myf suggests) to begin does help but is not essential.
    – Register your verge with the town council as a managed verge. If landowners and the council collaborated to grow this program it would reduce the costs of their current whip, snip and mow expenses.
    – Become an active member of a local landcare group or commit to manage and maintain an area of bush near you.
    – Support policy change that recognizes Buffel grass as an environmental weed.
    – Listen to and respect the custodians, traditional owners and native title holders for the deeper stories that shape this town and what they would like to see happen.
    – Encourage the concept of Ayepe-arenye (Yeperenye) as part of our Alice Springs identity and your children’s identity.
    – Recognize and respect the sacred sites with their Altyerr that are integral to this country (see the little book ‘A town like Mparntwe’).
    What else do you think we should do to care for custodians, caterpillars and country?

  11. @ Fiona Walsh (Posted January 19, 2017 at 6:52 pm): Great advice, Fiona. I’ll check to see whether the portion of fenceline abutting the laneway where I live can be registered with the Town Council as a managed verge (after all, the old laneways are gazetted roadways).
    Given the results of the weed control at my place, there’s good scope for the laneways to be quickly restored and easily managed wildlife corridors within the old urban areas of town, with potential to extend further afield over time.

  12. Would love to see Billygoat Hill cleared of weeds and revegetated. A small island of the original / natural environment in a sea of concrete and weeds.

  13. Thanks Fiona for a wonderful, inspirational story.
    It motivated me to go and read and learn about Yipirinya and about the biology and ecology of the hawk moth caterpillars.
    It is a sheer delight that articles that inspire in this way are to be found so regularly in the the Alice Springs News Online.


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