I promise to lay low on the caterpillar/moth/butterfly stuff for a while, but the following pics and story is just too cool not to share.
Thanks to David Hughes and Laura Stalder for discovering this amazing creature, taking pains to help ensure its survival, and sharing their photos with us.
The incredible Hickory Horned Devil, probably the most spectacular caterpillar in the eastern United States. These things are mammoth; the size of a hotdog. While they look fearsome and dangerous, Hickory Horned Devils are all bark and no bite. Those intimidating horns don't inject poison, the thing can't bite, and if you can overcome the fear factor, they're easy and safe to handle.
Hickory Horned Devils spend their time high in trees, vaccuuming up foliage like an over-active paper shredder. Thus, they're hard to spot, and I've only seen one. I was with a moth expert, and he actually spotted the devil's frass, or droppings, on the ground and then looked up and saw the cat up in the tree.
While David and Laura watched the devil happily chowing on walnut leaves, other creatures with much more malicious intent were also watching. Here, a tachinid fly moves in to investigate the caterpillar. There are scores of species of tachinids, and some look much like house flies, as this one does. But they've all got long stiff bristles, on their abdomen, which give them a distinctive appearance.
If you are a caterpillar, you don't want to be stalked by one of these flies. Even though the horned devil outmasses this little fly by a factor of 100 or more, the tiny tachinid spells doom. If you want to see the ultimate result of a tachinid's handiwork, GO HERE.
This is the world's luckiest Hickory Horned Devil. Dave and Laura knew what was going on, and fetched a pair of tweezers. With the precision of a skilled surgeon, they carefully plucked the eggs of death from the devil's body, and hopefully it'll survive to pupate and become one of our flashiest moths.
Thanks to David and Laura, not only for sharing their amazing photos with us, but also for their caterpillar rescue operation that will hopefully result in another much-needed Royal Walnut Moth.