The day of trail began as the day dawned with dark, leaden clouds and a heavy downpour. Soon enough, however, the skies cleared for the participants to enjoy a wonderful morning exploring and learning about the fascinating flora and fauna of the mangrove habitat. That began 24th of September.

WWF India’s Nature Connect initiative aims at connecting citizens, both young and young-at-heart, with their local biodiversity using well-structured, expert-led nature walks. The Maharashtra State Office (MSO) conducts a particularly robust Nature Connect programme with nature trails into the rich and often unknown green havens that delight and astound the city-dwelling participants from hustling, bustling Mumbai.    

The most recent trail conducted by WWF India MSO was to the Pirojshanagar Mangroves. Also known as the Godrej mangroves, this stretch of privately owned mangrove forest lies in the residential and commercial complex called the Godrej Creekside Colony and is conserved and scientifically managed by the Godrej Group. It is an internationally acclaimed forest area, home to rich biodiversity and providing visitors with a safe, hands-on nature experience. 

Where sea engulfs the land, Godrej Mangroves, Vikhroli

Mangroves provide a unique ecosystem – characteristically amphibious, being partly submerged under water twice a day by incoming tides. Therefore, the many animals and plants that call this place home are equally unique, displaying intriguing adaptations to survive and thrive in the region. One such creature observed on the trail shows nature at her most extraordinary albeit terrifying best.

Of the many photos clicked on the trail was one of a caterpillar and a spider. At a glance, you may assume you are looking at perhaps the final moments of a caterpillar about to make a hearty meal for the lynx spider - but the reality is so much more unbelievable. 

The caterpillar has, in fact, already been a meal but not for the spider – take a closer look at the white fuzzy stuff around the caterpillar; these are wasp larvae, enveloped in silky cocoons, ready to come out as adult winged wasps any day now.

Eat or be eaten: the photograph that started it all

Not too long ago, these wasp larvae were the happy and well-fed residents within the caterpillar’s body! The story begins with a female parasitoid wasp, who lays her eggs either within the caterpillar itself or camouflaged in leaf folds that the caterpillar happily consumes. Once inside their host’s body, the wasp eggs hatch and the larvae begin feasting on the body fluids of the hapless caterpillar, always making sure never to touch any essential organs. The larvae continue to live and moult within their caterpillar host till the day they are ready to leave. This is not the end of the road for the caterpillar, however – these parasitoid wasps have an incredible mind control tool; the wasp DNA consists of certain strains of viruses that infect the host, suppressing its immunity and also addles the brain of the hapless caterpillar. The confused caterpillar, who till now was a source of sustenance, now becomes a force of security - protecting the larvae, ensconced in their silken cocoons from other potential predators (such as this lynx spider). Eventually, the caterpillar dies of starvation, and the cocoons divulge their winged wasps, ready to enter the world and help another generation of wasp young – enter other caterpillars.

Nature never ceases to amaze!

Watch a horrifyingly fascinating video about this phenomenon here:

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