Skip to main content

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.

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.

Popular posts from this blog

The Pinching Beetle, a rather brutish looking bug

The world is awash in beetles, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Few of them can match the intimidation factor of a Pinching Beetle, Lucanus capreolus, though. Those formidable looking mandibles look like they could slice off a finger.

Today was one of those coolly diverse days. I started off down in Fayette County, visiting the farm of a friend. He has restored about 25 acres of wetlands, and the response by the animal community has been nothing short of phenomenal. Blizzards of dragonflies of many species, amphibians galore, and nesting Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora. Among MANY other things. And all in a short two years. Add water and they will come.

Then, working my way home, I ducked into a Madison County cemetery that has a thriving population of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, and shot images of our native prairie dog. Then, I stopped at a spot along Little Darby Creek, waded on in, and procured some pretty nice shots of various stream bluets and dancers. …

Calliope Hummingbird in central Ohio!

A hatch-year male Calliope Hummingbird strikes a pose. Small but tough, the hummingbird was feeding actively yesterday in 39 F temperatures. It frequents feeders and gardens at a home in Delaware County, Ohio, about a half-hour north of Columbus.

Fortunately, the wayward hummer appeared at the home of Tania and Corey Perry. Tania is a birder, and knew right away that the hummingbird was something special. For a while, the identification was up in the air, which isn't surprising. The Calliope Hummingbird used to be placed in its own genus, Stellula, but has recently been submerged into the genus Selasphorus, which includes Allen's, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds. The latter two, especially, are quite similar to the Calliope in subadult plumage. Rufous is the default "vagrant" hummingbird here, with dozens of records and birds turning up annually. There is but one Ohio record of Allen's Hummingbird, from late fall/early winter 2009. Ditto the Calliope Hummi…

Ballooning spiders

Fear not, ye arachnophobes. The subject of this entry is indeed about spiders, but the star of the show is about as cute as a spider can get. And you'll want to know what we're about to learn...

On my recent West Virginia foray, we were strolling down a seldom-used lane, when a bright yellow object caught our eye. It was a goldenrod crab spider, Misumena vatia, on top of a post! Not only that, she - it is a girl - was acting extraordinarily goofy. The spider would stilt up as high as she could go on her legs, weave back and forth, jig side to side, and otherwise engage in what appeared to be spider break-dancing.

Click the pic for expansion, and you can see two columns of silk issuing from her spinnerets. This is an important point, as we set about determining what this non-web-making spider is doing.


So fixated was our spider on her task that she even rejected what would seem to me to be a perfectly scrumptious meal. This little caterpillar climbed rapidly up the post and dire…