Gregory Wilkinson spent part of his summer vacation beating caterpillars in Arizona.
It was all for a good, green cause: To "beat" the creatures is to collect, and it is hoped, protect them.
"Some of the plants the caterpillars eat are disappearing, and the caterpillars are going to disappear too," says Wilkinson, 33, who teaches seventh-grade math at William Allen Middle School in Moorestown.
"They can't just decide to change what they're eating. That sort of adaptation takes thousands and thousands of years. And if they disappear, everything higher on the food chain will be affected."
Given that researchers don't have thousands of years to collect specimens, "they gave us these 'beat sheets,' basically a frame with a square sheet of fabric on it," says Wilkinson, who spent 11 days in July and August at Arizona's Santa Rita and Southwestern research stations, run by the University of Arizona and the American Museum of Natural History, respectively.
"We would hit the juniper trees with a stick, then check the sheet for [fallen] caterpillars," the Collingswood resident adds. "I was basically a beater."
Various kinds of caterpillars fell into his beat sheets, though the predominant local variety was the small geometrid.
An enthusiastic outdoorsman, triathlete, and traveler, Wilkinson, who returned from Arizona on Aug. 7, worked alongside teachers from across the country who also were awarded fellowships from the Earthwatch Institute.
After a colleague told him about the opportunity last winter, "I knew I wanted to go on an Earthwatch adventure," Wilkinson says.
The nonprofit organization was founded in 1971 and supports environmental research worldwide. This year it has sent 30 teachers and 64 students on research expeditions "to engage in citizen science," education manager Mary Powell says via e-mail from Boston.
Wilkinson's fellowship was fully underwritten by the Grousbeck Family Foundation in California.
"I'm so grateful to them," says Wilkinson, who was not certain what the expedition would have cost him otherwise.
"I love to travel as much as possible," he explains. "I want to get in touch with the environment, and find ways to basically conserve what we have."
Although Wilkinson describes the beatings and the "zoo" tasks - feeding the collected caterpillars and cleaning up their droppings - as "hard work, basically grunt work," he also says his eyes were opened by the experience.
Some of the specimens he collected will be frozen and dissected for evidence of parasitoids, which consume their hosts.
Climate change may be enabling some caterpillars to mature before the parasitoids can consume them - meaning more caterpillars with more time to damage more crops.
"You just don't think about how interconnected everything is," Wilkinson says. "A little change has a snowball effect."
He has spoken to Matthew Keith, principal of the 700-student middle school, about making a power-point presentation about his trip to the staff.
"For a math teacher to go into the science field is a cross-curricular approach that's exactly what the [new state] core curriculum is looking for," Keith says. "I want teachers to feel they can take risks and go out and explore and use their talents in other ways."
Says Wilkinson, "One of the things this expedition taught me is to just walk more slowly, and look carefully. After I got back I was hiking in Valley Forge, and I found myself turning over leaves and looking for caterpillar damage . . .. just looking at things I would never get up-close to before."