Wednesday, September 21, 2022
Monday, September 19, 2022
Nature: Hot dog! The hickory horned devil is one giant caterpillar!
September 18, 2022
A hidden army reaches a crescendo about this time of year. Its tubular soldiers are largely out of sight and mind, but wage battle with vegetation on an epic scale. Mostly emerging under cover of darkness — the better to avoid threats like hungry songbirds — caterpillars play an enormous but largely unsung role in ecology.
The ranks of caterpillars include scores of spectacular creatures, some seemingly lifted from the works of Dr. Seuss, or Alice in Wonderland. Accompanying this column is a photo of eastern North America’s largest species, the hickory horned devil (Citheronia regalis). It is often likened to a hot dog as a size scale, which is why I placed one in a bun for the photo. The horned devil was released unharmed on a black walnut (a common host plant).
If all goes well for the devil, it will eventually morph into a regal moth, a bat-sized behemoth clad in cinnamon scales punctuated with cream-colored spots. So different are the larva and adult moth that they go by different common names. Such bifurcated nomenclature is not uncommon in the world of moth caterpillars.
Although butterflies are far better known in the Lepidopteran world, it is moths that rule. About 140 species of butterflies have been found in Ohio. Moths crush them in diversity, with at least 2,000 documented species and scores more awaiting discovery. Both butterflies and moths have a four-part life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), cocoon (moth) or chrysalis (butterfly), and winged adult.
The caterpillar phase is perhaps the most interesting. Virtually all of our “cats” eat vegetation, and more often than not, a species is tied to a small group of flora, or even one plant. Native plants drive the caterpillar train. Our cats have no co-evolutionary history with nonnative invasive plants and mostly shun them.
Caterpillars are the frontline agents that transform plant tissue into nutritious protein that’s easily assimilated by other animals. They are steaks on legs, preyed upon at epic levels by all manner of predators. In response, moths, especially, engage in carpet-bombing reproduction. Females of some species might lay hundreds of eggs. This is necessary to get some offspring through the predatorial gauntlet and to the reproductive stage.
A highly conspicuous caterpillar consumer group is birds, mostly our songbirds. Without caterpillars to fuel them, many species would quickly vanish. Forests would literally fall silent. The melodies of orioles, tanagers, warblers and others would disappear. Perhaps kings of the caterpillar-eaters are the vireos. Our most common species is the red-eyed vireo, which winters in South America and temporarily occupies eastern North America to exploit the seasonal bounty of caterpillars. About one million red-eyed vireos summer in Ohio, and collectively they eat some 30 million caterpillars daily.
At the recent Mothapalooza sponsored by the Arc of Appalachia, we were fortunate to have the Caterpillar Lab on hand. Founder Sam Jaffe began doing educational programs on caterpillars in 2008, and in 2015 launched the lab, which is based in New Hampshire.
Jaffe and crew enjoy visiting Ohio and have been here numerous times, including several Mothapaloozas. They bring many fascinating specimens and entrance audiences with wee beasts that are all around, but rarely seen. The lab directly contacts about 40,000 people a year, which includes many school visits.
Jaffe and company are pied pipers for caterpillar conservation, and by extension, overall preservation of biodiversity. In addition to educational outreach, the lab does a variety of research, such as the effect of the loss of ash trees on caterpillar species due to the emerald ash borer.
We hope to have the Caterpillar Lab back in Ohio for the next Mothapalooza, which will be July 14-16, 2023, at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary. It’s an event probably quite unlike any other you’ve experienced, and attendees will see legions of interesting moths and caterpillars. Mothapalooza fills quickly, so watch the website for details. Registration will open sometime next spring: https://arcofappalachia.org/Mothapalooza
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.
Saturday, September 17, 2022
Tall Goldenrod is a conspicuous and highly productive plant of old fields, meadows and other open well-drained habitats. As is typically the case with very common native plants, goldenrods spawn legions of interesting insects that have co-evolved with them, and host scores of others that dine on the goldenrod's abundant nectar and pollen or use the plants in other ways.
Wednesday, September 14, 2022
On September 8, 2022, word emerged about nesting Black-bellied Whistling Ducks nesting on a small farm pond in Wayne County. The landowner, Henry Miller, noticed the ducks on his pond, and quite understandably did not recognize this largely tropical species. A neighbor, Harry Swartzentruber, made the identification, Joe Rabor got the word out, and the rest is history.
The Miller family kindly made their pond accessible to interested birders, and I visited yesterday. They have gone to some lengths to accommodate visitors at their sheep farm, and their guest log showed that several dozen people had visited as of yesterday.
Tuesday, September 13, 2022
Newark Public Library in downtown Newark. The talk is loosely structured on the book above, and is a quick foray around Ohio, looking at some of our most iconic sites and interesting flora and fauna. The program is full of imagery.
Admission is free, but the library asks that you register in advance - details HERE. We'd love to have you!