Plush caterpillar set teaches butterfly life stages

A plush Papilio caterpillar! Photo: K. La Flamme
Finding and raising caterpillars is a fun way to engage children with science and the natural world. I have many fond memories of this as a child. We raised Monarchs, Black Swallowtails, Cecropia moths, and many more. There are many teaching points along the way when you are rearing caterpillars. You can learn about plant-animal interactions, animal behaviour, and the life history of butterflies and moths. Here in Ontario this actually forms part of the Grade 2 curriculum. Specifically, the Ontario Curriculum states:
GRADE 2 | UNDERSTANDING LIFE SYSTEMS GROWTH AND CHANGES IN ANIMALS
2.3 investigate the life cycle of a variety of animals (e.g., butterflies, frogs, chickens), using a variety of methods and resources (e.g., observation of live animals in the classroom and in the schoolyard; books, videos/DVDs, CD-ROMs, and/or the Internet) 
2.4 observe and compare changes in the appearance and activity of animals as they go through a complete life cycle (e.g., frog, butterfly)
I recently discovered another fun and exciting way to engage even very young children with these same principals: metamorphosing plush caterpillars! Kristin La Flamme is a fabric artist with a BFA in Graphic Design. She designed a set of plush dolls based on the Citrus Swallowtail that interactively demonstrate the progression through key life stages (see her post here). As nearly all swallowtail caterpillars share the same "bird-dropping" colour pattern during their early instars, she begins with an early-instar "bird poop caterpillar":

The early-instar plush caterpillar. Photo: K. La Flamme
La Flamme states:
"We started with our “baby,” the first through third stages (instars) of the swallowtail: the bird poop caterpillar. This stuffed version features a brown and white fabric, ruched to accentuate the caterpillar’s texture."
For comparison, here is an early instar Papilio canadensis caterpillar:

An actual 1st instar Papilio canandensis caterpillar.
As caterpillars grow they progress through these instars, of which most caterpillars have five. The caterpillar will moult and typically adopt a new colour pattern better suited to its new feeding habits and larger size. For many of the swallowtail caterpillars, particularly those feeding on broad leaved plants, the caterpillars become green and gain eyespots in their later instars. Kristin incorporates the concept on moulting and colour change into her plush set by designing a lined zip-up pouch where you stuff the early instar caterpillar:

The transition from early to late instar caterpillar. Photo: K. La Flamme
Once stuffed into the pouch the caterpillar takes on its late-instar form:

The late instar plush caterpillar. Photo: K. La Flamme
Note the button eyespots and the orange, forked osmetarium which was added in later versions. La Flamme adds:
"I added the osmeterium (yellow-orange scent glands) later as it seemed like it could use a little jazzing up. I love how the functional zipper mimics the actual patterning on the real caterpillar. I really love that it was my daughter’s idea and not mine."
She's right, check out this photo of a real late-instar Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) caterpillar:


Now, the late-instar plush caterpillar gets pushed into its "chrysalis purse":



...then out you pull the adult butterfly (imago)!



...and here is the entire set:


I e-mailed Kristin to find out more about this plush set and her inspirations. She responded promptly with the follwoing answers to my quesitons:


Tom: What do you find most interesting about caterpillars? 
Kristin: I am in complete awe at a caterpillar's potential to become a butterfly. The differences in forms between various instars is amazing enough, but add yet another transformation into a seemingly completely different bug is incredible.

T: Do you think it is important to engage children with the natural world? If so why?
K: I absolutely think it is important to engage children with the natural world. I think it gives them an understanding of how the world works, and I also think they become sympathetic to the need to respect and preserve nature rather than to just try to dominate it. I also think that engaging kids in nature allows them moments of awe and beauty that they may not find in the man-made world.

T: What inspired you to make this plush caterpillar set?
K: My daughter and I love to craft and sew together. It was her idea after watching the caterpillar transform to make some sort of softie of it's phases. I love making purses, so it seemed like an excellent opportunity to combine skills and make an interactive set that reflected what we had been watching in our back yard.

T: Have you done any other insect related artwork?
K: I have not done any other insect related artwork. Although, the wads of tangled threads in my sewing room often remind me of little spiders and flies, so maybe there's the seeds of something there....

T: Can people order one of these plush caterpillar sets from your website?
K: This set was a one-time creation. I have toyed with the idea of partnering with a publisher and creating a story book with illustrations and instructions for making one's own plush metamorphosis set, but never actually pursued it


Thanks Kristin for your creativity and enthusiasm! 




You can find out more about Kristin La Flamme and her fabric art by visiting her personal website (http://kristinlaflamme.com/) and you can see her newest creations on her blog.

Her original post about her plush caterpillar set can be found here: Metamorphosis

She has blogged about her experience with a Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio xuthus) here: Oh Poop!

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