Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bizarre tube of goo spawns stunning moth!

Bizarre and alienlike, a last instar Cecropia Moth caterpillar, Hyalophora cecropia, is adorned with colorful spined spikes. I lucked into this animal last Saturday, at the Midwest Native Plant Conference. One of the attendees, moth expert Kevin Clark, had brought some of his caterpillar livestock along, including this beast. And as further luck would have it, ace photographer David FitzSimmons was also in the house with all of his gear.

Dave wanted to image the caterpillar, so he set up his white box, which is essentially a small white tent that allows him to display subjects on a clean background under controlled conditions. While I'm not used to shooting this way, Dave was kind enough to allow me some time with the caterpillar and white box, and the above photo is one of the results. Displaying an animal in this way makes for interesting images, and details really pop. This is how Dave shot all of the images for his award-winning Curious Critters book - check that out RIGHT HERE.

Cecropia caterpillars are big, nearly the size of a small hotdog. As far as eating machines go, they make Joey Chestnut look like a chump. All they do is eat, eat, eat, and grow, grow, grow. When a Cecropia cat first hatches from its tiny egg, it is hundreds of times smaller than the massive bruiser shown here. Through a series of molts, with each growth stage termed an instar, the caterpillar blows up into a truly awe-inspiring bag of goo. The colorful orange and blue clubs adorned with spines add a nice touch.

If you're quiet, you can hear the caterpillar chewing from some distance away. Plant matter is vacuumed in via the mouthparts (shown above) and soon expelled out the other end in the form of frass (caterpillar poo). The frass pellets are substantial, and some people first discover Cecropia caterpillars by the ever-growing piles of frass below the feeding tree. Had I been on my game, I would have photographed that, too. Cecropias aren't overly finicky eaters, and have been found snacking on a wide variety of woody plants including birch, elm, maple, ash, cherry and many others.

Photo: Tami Gingrich

Tami Gingrich, who raises Cecropias, was kind enough to allow me the use of her beautiful image of an adult Cecropia. What a showstopper this animal is! It is the largest indigenous moth in North America (the increasing numbers of tropical Black Witches may change that), and is the size of a small bat. No one, and I mean no one, would not stop for a double-take if they spotted one of these moths. If someone were to ignore one of these marvelous moths, I would feel compelled to declare them devoid of intellectual curiosity, and in a later stage of nature deficit disorder.

For all of their ornate beauty, the adult Cecropia, like the other giant silkmoths, will live for but a week if that. It has no functional mouthparts and adults exist only to find a mate, and reproduce. They are little more than incredibly showy flying gonads. Once a pair has mated and the female has dropped her eggs, the moths soon wink out. It is the caterpillar stage that lasts by far the longest, and (arguably) is the most important facet of the moth's lifecycle.

Photo: Tami Gingrich

The Cecropias have a friend in Tami, who raises many of them. She's got quite a handful of cats here, and is lucky that her fingers don't have the taste and feel of cherry leaves. Keeping this number of livestock in food is no small matter - the caterpillar rancher must regularly harvest substantial amounts of foliage to stoke their insatiable appetites.

Moths are truly bits of magic, transforming from odd-looking tubular goo-bags to some of Nature's most stunning winged creatures.

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3 comments:

KaHolly said...

The last instar and the moth are both works of art!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. I was looking for insect egg IDs all the way from Scotland when your photos cropped up on google image search. I was amazed to see a bare hand holding those caterpillars. I remember them well from growing up in Maryland. We were told that they were poisonous to touch by a park ranger, but maybe that was a cunning ploy to get kids to leave them alone! They're still the most amazing caterpillars I know.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. I was looking for insect egg IDs all the way from Scotland when your photos cropped up on google image search. I was amazed to see a bare hand holding those caterpillars. I remember them well from growing up in Maryland. We were told that they were poisonous to touch by a park ranger, but maybe that was a cunning ploy to get kids to leave them alone! They're still the most amazing caterpillars I know.