Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two weird moths and an even weirder looper

I spent today conducting breeding bird atlas work in the hinterlands of west-central Ohio; probably the last day of the season for atlassing. At first light, there's lots of singing and I found many things, but activity tapers off rapidly as morning progresses.

Luckily for me, the area I am working on harbors several of the best remaining remnants of the formerly vast Darby Plains prairie. So as the heat of the day set in, I visited two of these sites and found numerous interesting things and made quite a few photos.

Milford Center Prairie is an old railroad right-of-way, now used by Dayton Power & Light to support transmission lines. Railroads often protect the best surviving prairie, as the rights-of-way were never plowed, and they are kept free of woody plants that would eventually overshadow the sun-loving prairie plants.

To me, visiting these prairie scraps brings mixed emotions. On the one hand, I revel in the explosion of biodiversity that erupts in these botanical hotspots; a complete counterpoint to the desolation of the surrounding corn and bean fields. On the other hand, I always am forced to reflect upon the near complete destruction of Ohio's - and much of the Midwest's - prairies. I'd say 99% + of Ohio's original prairie has been scrubbed off the map - lost to development and agriculture.

But we will focus on the positive.
Mid-July is prime time to be in the prairies. It's a botanical bonanza, and the lemony blossoms of Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata, are a sure eye-catcher. Even though I have plenty, I couldn't resist making more photos. This is a fabulous species to grow in the garden, too. Like most native prairie plants, it is tough and takes little care, and even the brownest of thumbs should do well with it. I'm sure some of the vendors at the Midwest Native Plant Conference will have Prairie Coneflower on hand.

A compelling reason to plant natives is because of the bugs that they attract. This is ecological ground zero, and native plants and bugs support the other life forms such as birds. And Prairie Coneflower attracts scores of insects.

While photographing a particularly showy patch, I noticed an odd protruberance on the disc, or center, of the flower in the upper left. Perhaps you see it too, on the right side of the column of brownish disc flowers.

I moved in for a closer look, and was rewarded by the sight of one our most bizarre caterpillars. It is a Camouflaged Looper, Synchlora aerata. This is a VERY cool cat! They attempt to mask themselves by taking plant fragments and attaching them to their body, and it works pretty well. This one has taken scraps of the central disc flowers of this Prairie Coneflower and used them quite effectively. Even so covered, when it moves the caterpillar proceeds in the classic inchworm or looper gait, as seen here.

Camouflaged Loopers like to reside on species in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and here's one on Wingstem, Verbesina alternifolia. I found several of these interesting loopers with little effort, and if you start checking appropriate flowers, I'll bet you do too.

The adult moth is a pretty thing; sort of faint emerald-green in color and the wings are striped with pale white lines. But like most moths, that of the Camouflaged Looper is nocturnal and hard to see.

Not so this little beast, and I'd like a dollar for every person who has waded through their butterfly books trying to figure out what it is. This is another moth, the Eight-spotted Forester, Alypia octomaculata. It's a day flyer, and like many of the other diurnal moths it is rather bright and showy, unlike its often drab brown night time relatives.

Eight-spotted Foresters often rest with their wings stretched outward, revealing all eight spots. This one was feeling some pressure from me, I suspect, as I stalked it and tended to keep its wings folded. Note the bright orange leg bases. This species is common, as are its host plants: various wild grapes (Vitis), and Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia.

Another puzzler is this moth, the Ailanthus Webworm Moth, Atteva aurea (formerly A. punctella). They look like beetles at a glance. These day-flyers aren't native here, but have capitalized on the widespread establishment of Tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, which they use as a host.

Ailanthus Webworm Moths are native in the tropical Americas, where they feed on plants in the Simaroubaceae family. When the nasty, invasive Tree-of-heaven was imported here from China, they apparently jumped to it and greatly expanded their range. Bully for them! I hope they eat every Tree-of-heaven they can find!


Lisa at Greenbow said...

That camo looper is wonderful.

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you, Lisa. Camo Loopers are as cool as cool can be, and I would encourage everyone to start checking Black-eyed Susans and the like for them.


rebecca said...

I was out with a group of coworkers recently and we found an Alianthus Webworm Moth outside a Panera, of all places! We didn't know what it was at the time and the only cameras we had with us were of the cell phone variety, which aren't known for their great macro abilities. Happily I happened to stumble across the ID on the BugGuide website a couple days later. Very cool!

Steve Willson said...

It always bothers me when I find Ailanthus Webworm Moths far removed from any known Ailanthus infestation. I don't know if this species ranges a long distance from its host plant or if there are undiscovered Ailanthus plants nearby.

Russell Reynolds said...

Wow Jim ,, I will be lookin' for these next time out. This blog is a wonderful learning place. Without knowledge of these ,, how many have I walked past.

Jana said...

I found an ailanthus webworm moth on Culver's root in my garden. It seemed to really like it. Maybe its tastes are diversifying.

Heather said...

Wow, those camouflaged Loopers are crazy! I will definitely be on the lookout for them. Thanks for highlighting them, Jim.

Anonymous said...

I saw the Alianthus Webworm Moth on yor blog and said "That's the "beetle" I saw and could not identify!" Thanks for the ID. I'm going to check out my cone flowers now for those loopers!

Russell Reynolds said...

Whoa Jim ,, just wne tout and checked my coneflowers and there they were ,, Camo Loopers.. Cool there were a few that weren't I camo yet but starting to work on it . By the time I made my rounds and came back he was about suited up. My eye has always been on the birds but since I have met you and visited your blog I am training my eye in other directions . Sooo much to see. Russell

Jim McCormac said...

Got your cool photo series of the loopers in the act of putting on the disguise, Russ. Very cool, thanks!

Thanks too for everyone else's feedback, and I'm glad the photos helped to make some identifications!


Pat Ernst said...

Thanks for posting the info on the Alianthus Webworm Moth. I will be on the lookout for the Camo Looper...

Unknown said...

I live in New Jersey and keep finding those Web worms at night on my house right by my outdoor light. Never knew what they were but the spiders sure like them if they get sick in a Web!