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The Secret Life of the Woolly Bear Caterpillar

Holding a Great Northern Woolly Bear Caterpillar. Imagine the size of the moth that it becomes! Or, this is Larry holding a giant woolly bear pillow at the Hudson Highlands Nature Center, in Cornwall, NY.
The Story Behind the Book

Woolly bears! These charming little critters have given me so much pleasure for many years. I loved having the opportunity to learn more about them, and write about them.

Each autumn I would see some, perhaps crossing a road or sometimes right near my house. And even in winter I would find a few. Taking an armload of firewood from a wood pile, for the fireplace, I would uncover a curled-up woolly. I'd make sure to cover it with wood again, safe in its shelter. In the fall of 2012, working on this book, I saw more of these caterpillars than usual, all within a hundred feet of our house.

I took many pictures, followed them, and got ideas for little details to include in the story. And this was to be a story--a nonfiction story about one caterpillar. I did a little investigating because woolly bears are caterpillars of one kind of tiger moth, and I had read that some tiger moth caterpillars release a silken thread to ease their way down from a high place. I had only seen woolly bears on the ground, never up on a plant, but I wanted to check. So I picked up a few of these caterpillars on different days and put them on tall flower stems so see how they would behave. Each one tried its best to walk down from the high place. No quick drop on a silken thread! (But it was fascinating to observe, closeup, just how a woolly bear uses its 16 legs to get around.)

Early in my research I learned that this species's scientific name begins with the word Isabella. I assumed that the person who named the species, long ago, chose that name to honor his wife or daughter. I thought readers would like to know about the woman or girl who inspired the name of this creature. Much to my surprise I learned that the word "isabella" was once used to describe a yellow-brown color! The adult moth has wings that color, and that is why it is called the isabella tiger moth. Perhaps we should revive the old meaning of that word. We could say, "There goes that girl with isabella hair."