07 June 2009
If you enjoy the complexity of a fine red wine... thank a caterpillar
"Caterpillars play a major, although indirect, role in all of our lives by exerting a chronic force on plants to evolve mechanisms to discourage herbivores. Plants are immobile. Caterpillars are omnipresent. If a plant is to survive through evolutionary time, it must have defenses, many of which are chemical: latexes, alkaloids, terpenes, tannins, and myriad others. Many of these compounds have medicinal (opium, salicylic acid = aspirin, digitalis, and taxol), culinary (tea, coffee, pepper, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, and other spices), and commercial (rubber and turpentine) values. And should you have an appreciation for fine red wines, be assured that the tannins that give the wine its body and character are there for an entirely different reason. Tannins are digestibility reducers manufactured by many woody plants that cross-link proteins and make them chemically unavailable to the organisms that ingest them. Thus, if only in a round-about way, life would be considerably less rich and less interesting (and much less flavorful) without caterpillars."
--from David L. Wagner, Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History.
Photo credit to Ardo Beltz.