Thursday, August 6, 2015

Camouflaged Loopers

The flower of an Ox-eye Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides, is bookended by the old heads of Gray-headed Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata. The shot was taken today, in the planted prairie that I wrote about in my last post, HERE.

While taking a call today, I wandered out of the office and over to the prairie. Multitasking - talking, listening, and looking for cool bugs. I'm seldom disappointed with even the briefest of forays into our new prairie, and today was no exception. While on the call, I spotted an exceptionally nice specimen of one of our coolest caterpillars, and once through with business grabbed some camera gear and snapped some shots.

A robust - last instar, no doubt - Camouflaged Looper, Synchlora aerata, snacks on the anthers of the disk flowers of the aforementioned Oxeye Sunflower. That'd be the cat's head on the left with mouthparts busily intaking nutrients. It goes without saying that its hind end with its two sets of anal prolegs is at the right. This is an inchworm, thus the body loops high in the air.

What is so cool about the cam-loops ( as they will be known in the remainder of this post) is how they adorn their bodies with bits of plant parts scavenged from the plants that they feed upon. Old anthers, petals, phyllaries - somehow the cam-loops lift them into position and affix the debris firmly in position. The end result is a caterpillar ghillie suit, and it serves to hide the animals remarkably well. Indeed, many - or at least some - avid and experienced caterpillar hunters lament their lack of cam-loop sightings. I'd bet they walk by more of them than they realize.

Cam-loops can be surprisingly common. Finding them is just a matter of keying into their peculiar habits, and training one's eye to look for anomalies on flowers. If the anomaly moves, you can be pretty sure you'll have a cam-loop.

While cam-loops may feast on other types of flora, I only know them from members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). The cam-loop in the photo above is feeding on Gray-headed Coneflower.

This is the first cam-loop I ever found, and it was eating Wing-stem, Verbesina alternifolia. I was actually photographing the Wing-stem flowers, when one of them moved. Voila! My first cam-loop. I learned a profound lesson from this inaugural experience: give more than a passing glance to the disk flowers of members of the Asteraceae. Adhering to that rule has netted me many a cam-loop in the intervening years.

Here we have a cam-loop, largely unadorned. It's in the disk flowers of a Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, and must just be getting started with the floral makeup job. I'd love to see what it looks like after decorating. And yes, I'd also like to know the identity of that little beast hiding just left of the caterpillar. I didn't notice it until I reviewed the image much later.

This cam-loop is doing well on Tall Goldenrod, Solidago altissima, and has dressed itself to match.

In spite of incredible skills at camouflage, cam-loops have many enemies and some are good at ferreting them out. This is a female wasp in the genus Lytopylus. She is stabbing her ovipositor deep into the disk flowers of an Orange Coneflower, Rudbeckia fulgida, and some poor caterpillar is the recipient of her sting. I didn't tear into the flower to see, but the victim may well have been a cam-loop. The wasp is actually laying eggs on its target, upon which the wasp larvae will feast.

I'm sure plenty of other caterpillar-hunting wasps, spiders, ambush bugs, assassin bugs, songbirds and more make regular meals of cam-loops. But one MUST give the cam-loops credit for trying, and an A for creativity.

Should a cam-loop run the predatorial gauntlet successfully, it will ultimately morph into this little beauty - the Wavy-lined Emerald moth. This little jewel-like wonder should be a welcome addition to any property. But to get them, one must start by planting native members of the sunflower family.

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6 comments:

Lisa Rainsong said...

This is one of the most fascinating of your many outstanding posts, Jim! We humans think we know so much, and yet miracles we never notice are going on around us all the time.

mosquitobait said...

Here in Cincinnati, I found a looper yesterday on some Appalachian mountain mint (/Pycnanthemum flexuosum/). See URL linked to name for photo.

Ron Gamble said...

I figure you put this in here to see how many of us actually read your posts (and you don't have to post this one :-) ), but underneath your first cam-looper photo, we've got the anal prolegs and head both described as on the left side... ???

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments, and good catch Ron! Fixed!

Robert Dana said...

I have come across S. aerata caterpillars feeding on prairie clovers (both Dalea candida and D. purpurea), and on Verbena stricta. I have photos, but no way to share them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the photos and excellent descriptions!
We found one of these on raspberries in Illinois and didn't know what it was - now we do!