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Caterpillars in Micropolis

“We frequently see, at the ends of pine branches, voluminous bags of white silk intermixed with leaves. These bags are, generally, puffed out at the top and narrow at the bottom, pear-shaped. They are sometimes as large as a person’s head. They are nests where live together a kind of very velvety caterpillars with red hairs. A family of caterpillars, coming from the eggs laid by one butterfly, construct a silk lodging in common. All take part in the work, all spin and weave in the general interest. The interior of the nest is divided by thin silk partitions into a number of compartments. At the large end, sometimes elsewhere, is seen a wide funnel-shaped opening; it is the large door for entering and departing. Other doors, smaller, are distributed here and there. The caterpillars pass the winter in their nest, well sheltered from bad weather. In summer they take refuge there at night and during the great heat.”

Jean Henri Fabre on the Processionary Caterpillar


So begins the march of the Processionary Caterpillar. While children’s author/illustrator Eric Carle might say, “Out pops a very hungry caterpillar,” in this particular case, out pops, single file, not one, but a large family of very hungry caterpillars.

When Fabre observed this caterpillar’s strong instinct to follow-the-leader, its steps locked to the caterpillar being followed, he decided to hypothesize and to test his big idea by setting up a simple experiment. In 1896, he coaxed caterpillars to march in a chain around a flowerpot. And there they circled for days. Round and round and round.

And what did he observe?

Not even food set inches from their proverbial noses distracted the caterpillars from their mindless following.

There was no leader.

And so the caterpillars earned their name.

Scientific observation involves much more than seeing. Providing opportunities for students to observe allows them to practice such skills as collecting, predicting, constructing, perceiving. The art of observation helps  students to risk and ultimately lead.

Jean Henri Fabre’s acute backyard observations laid the foundation for entomology. His earnest observations and insights are collected in ten volumes entitled Souvenirs Entomologiques.

Micropolis, at St Léons, France, is a wonderful destination dedicated to etymology and Fabre’s contribution to this significant branch of science.

Ever marveling at the power of the neologism, I clicked around on the World Wide Web until I came across the Micropolis website. Unfortunately I don’t read, write, or speak French. Still I couldn’t help but poke around a bit as I pondered the word—Micropolis.

And then it struck me.

What a wonderful testament to Fabre. In a single word—Micropolis—the museum communicates the life of a man dedicated to unearthing the diversity of nature in his own backyard.

Da Vinci Summer 2014 is only weeks away. Join the fun as we conjure big ideas for observing the small worlds brimming with diversity that we take for granted, the simple spaces in our very own backyard. Let’s think small. After all, the Renaissance Man himself reminds us, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


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