A touch of light: totemic caterpillars


 Totemic caterpillars, © Mike Gillam.


Before we actually heard rain, the petrichor drifting through our windows was intoxicating. We’d recorded less than 100mm in two years and when it finally came, the rain was gentle and penetrating; barely audible on our corrugated iron roof.

As we emerged from severe drought a silver lining was revealed in our patch of paradise. We soon realised the euros, bearded dragons, brown and spiny-cheeked honeyeaters were not the only losses from our biological inventory. Fortunately, significant areas of buffel grass, a weed we have suppressed for over 20 years, failed to re-shoot from rhizomes.

Many of the established tussocks on the fragile hill-slopes, too risky for us to remove, had died. From between the stark grey minarets of the dead tussocks, native vines, succulents and button grass carpeted the bare ground.

Yellow flowering Tribulus, the dreaded three cornered jack, was back but the galahs would keep them under control.

Most prevalent of all was the sticky tar-vine, Ayepe. This important food plant would produce the greatest peak of Ayepe-arenye (Yeperenye, Yipirinya) caterpillars I’d ever seen in Centralia.

Within a few weeks the luxuriant vines were stripped of leaves and the rapidly growing multitude clustered on the last vestiges of food including the less favoured Portulaca.

Twenty years ago I’d arranged a variety of contrasting colours and patterns of Ayepe-arenye for the purposes of demonstrating their highly polymorphic nature. Here at last I was able to locate naturally occurring caterpillars, feeding in tight clusters, and I was spoilt for choice.

Last week I photographed sites where the Ayepe-arenye exceeded densities of >100 per square metre, but such images won’t translate on a website.

Visitors walking along the nature strip of our street mentioned that many other vine patches around town lacked caterpillars. In our locale we had such an abundance of these living dot paintings that we caterpillar ‘bombed’ a dozen sites where vines had been missed by the egg laying hawk moths.

With exquisite timing the green stink beetles, an enemy of the Yeperenye that features prominently in Arrernte storytelling, were suddenly everywhere, joining the crows and kites in the daily search for juicy caterpillars.

The Yeperenye peak has passed but it’s still possible to see caterpillars around town. Look for forgotten spaces, laneways and nature strips, the edges of car parks and remnant bush especially the foot-slopes of hills.

While the life-giving Ayepe vine should be widespread in every suburb, regretfully its viewed by some as unruly, to be sprayed in favour of sterile gravel or pampered lawns.

In Hele Crescent we’ve assiduously protected the Ayepe vine and it has even paid off in caterpillar dung – true story, kilos of it!

Our caterpillar ‘stimulus package’ has also mixed and aerated the soil as hundreds of thousands of larvae burrow and commence their transformation from pupa to moth. Soon the emergent moths will be dodging a vortex of kites and crows in the skies above our house.

Meanwhile our attention is divided between those hawkmoths, several species, that are feeding on the night flowering native passionfruit and the spectacular daily emergence of thousands of tiny blue butterflies beneath the mulgas.

Students working at home might get up before sunrise and, moving with the speed and grace of a mantis, try to film these moths before succumbing to the call of the laptop.


A touch of light: shield shrimps

Mike Gillam said the moths would be out soon. This was our flyscreen this morning!
Charlie Carter


  1. Wow, twelve Ayepe-arenye in one photo. I so appreciate what you share Mike.
    In these strange times gardens, bush and nature can offer solace. It’s easy to walk, look and be curious.
    Last evening in the Spencer Hill Landcare area I was watching a herd of Utnerrengatye (Emu bush caterpillars).
    They grazed on the tips of Utnerre (Emu bush shrub). I was surprised to see an Ilperenye (aka green stinky beetle) like a sentinel higher than the caterpillars. I associate them as ground-dweller who hunt Ayepe-arenyes.
    While I was video-ing the Ilperenye, the beetle disappeared out of frame. Gone? No, it leapt to grab and stab a caterpillar. A long pincer hold as green guts streamed out. I felt a chill and saw more clearly why Arrernte people whisper the name Ilperenye as if something scary.
    Is sci-fi in our backyard better than TV?
    Thanks again to you, other landcarers who clear space for wonderful critters and traditional owners who share their insights.

  2. This is what news should be! Fascinating stories and great photos of the world around us – and on our doorstep.
    Uluru didn’t get the early March rain that Alice received – just a few storms, instead, to bring in the New Year.
    But, the rain is pattering on the tin roofs now, for the first time in ages, in a national park empty of visitors.
    David Curl @uluruTV.

  3. Lovely to read about your caterpillar observations Mike, thank you.
    And yes, we have been observing them on the foothills, but the vines at my house remained untouched.
    I am sorry I was not prepared sufficiently to bring back a few stray caterpillars wandering loosely on the paths looking for more food after the vines were stripped bare so quickly.

  4. What a positive and beautiful story. The photo is absolutely stunning.
    Thanks, Mike Gillam.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here