I got permission to do some of my research! Woohoo!
Specifically, I will be collecting in Big Bend National Park, Texas, in a couple weeks. There is one Acronicta species, Acronicta valliscola, which was discovered within the park and has only been found there. All of the specimens I have seen in collections (and there are only a few) have been 30+ years old. So in order to get DNA for my phylogeny, it’s off to Texas I go. The time of year is right, the plane tickets have been purchased, and we’re starting to gather our field gear (trying to figure out how to carry a tent, sleeping bags, UV lights, caterpillar jars, etc).
I will be going with a student who started in our lab as an undergraduate helper, then stayed a year to work for us in the lab, and now he is accepted to be a masters student in the fall. He knows his way around some caterpillar frass, let me tell ya. We will be traveling to Big Bend as well as some other locations in south-central Texas to collect moths and caterpillars for my project.
If anyone knows of good collecting spots in south-west or south-central Texas, please share! Even better if you live in the area and would be willing to host a couple of caterpillar-crazy entomology students for a night.
I’m sure my excitement won’t fully materialize until we arrive. For now I mostly feel relief that at least part of my project is going as planned.
Joe Acronicta had had enough of us poking and prodding him, and decided to pupate.
I know that most Acronicta species pupate by tunneling into soft, dead wood. But usually this is a shallow groove, covered by bits of wood and silk. Sometimes they burrow in deeper, but you can see the hole behind them.
Joe decided to be a bit like some other Acronictines (species in different genera, but still closely related to Acronicta). Genera like Comachara, Polygrammate, and Harrisimemna all dig deep tunnels into wood. Then they crawl out and back into the tunnel rear-end first, sealing up the entrance with silk and bits of wood.
That’s exactly what Joe did.
The cleverly disguised entrance.
I’m not sure how long it will be before he emerges, maybe a few weeks or months? When caterpillars pupate early in the season, it usually (but not always) means they will emerge in time to start another brood before cold weather arrives. If they pupate late in the season, they will usually (but not always) overwinter as a pupa.
While we are pretty sure that we have these caterpillars matched up with the correct adult, we are excited to have an adult emerge so we are 100% sure. I’ll post pictures when Joe makes his appearance as a moth!
We recently received a new friend from Texas – nicknamed “Joe Acronicta” by the collaborator who sent him to us.
This is one of my favorite species – Acronicta atristrigatus, also known as the “Paddlemaster”. I bet you can guess why.
What we’re all wondering, though, is what those paddles are for. They appear on several Acronicta species, but in different arrangements. Some only have them in place of the dorsal setae, while others are nearly covered in paddles. I have a feeling they are used to thwart parasitoids which may try to land on the caterpillar to lay their eggs. Many species of flies and wasps see caterpillars as big tasty meals for their offspring.
I imagine all those hairs would make it difficult for a parasitoid to land. And if it does, the caterpillar will surely notice.
These guys also have some interesting defensive behaviors.
Don’t worry, I did not hurt the caterpillar! Like most Acronicta species, it starts with a bite (or attempted bite). But instead of simply returning to its perch, the caterpillar begins to sway side to side. We are all curious as to whether this serves to deter birds, or parasitoids, or perhaps the caterpillar is trying to sway gently like a tree branch?
What do you think?
It’s springtime, and that means the moths in the lab are emerging from their cocoons. Since it is warmer here in the lab, they tend to emerge a few weeks earlier than they would in the wild. This means we get a head-start on pinning and labeling the moths before the field season gets underway.
One wall of our “rearing room”
It is bittersweet, sometimes, when I meet an adult moth I’ve raised from an egg. Knowing that it will be added to my collection as a specimen. Advancing science, but putting an end to a small, fuzzy life. It doesn’t help that I get quite attached to my caterpillars.
But in many ways I embrace this aspect of my work, as the act of pinning and spreading a moth involves considerable skill, practice, and artistry. I am also a firm believer in the importance of scientific specimen collections. Monday mornings are currently my favorite part of the week because that is when I work in UConn’s biological collections, helping to curate the moths. Each specimen has a history and tells a story.
A freshly emerged adult moth
Some moths on the spreading board
With the emergence of the moths comes the emergence of field gear and enthusiasm. The caterpillar lab can be a dull place during the winter. But this spring/summer promises to be full of adventure, misadventure, and insects. We are starting to receive caterpillars in the mail from collaborators in warmer climates. Moths are fluttering around porch lights at night. Collecting trips are being planned all around the country. I will be breaking out my own collecting lights within the next couple weeks.
For the time being, though, my main duty is pinning my adult moths as they emerge. If you would like to learn more about this task – my friend and I are currently creating an instructional screencast on how to pin a moth – I will post it as soon as it is finished.
Is it the third week of the month already? Time for another meeting of the Connecticut Entomological Society! The meetings are free and open to the public, though becoming a member is highly encouraged ($7/year for students, $15/year everyone else). The meetings involve dinner, a talk, show-and-tell and general entomological gossip. This month’s meeting is being held this Friday evening at Yale.
Connecticut Entomological Society
“Pop-up” Flash Extreme Macro Photography
Arthur S. Vaughan
Vice President and Member of the New England Camera Club Council
April 19, 2013
Room 123, Kline Geology Laboratory Auditorium, Yale University
210 Whitney Avenue
New Haven, CT
Art will introduce his “pop-up” flash macro photography” and show some fascinating pictures of insects and spiders.
This is our annual potluck dinner and silent auction. Please bring a dish to share as well as any items you would like to donate to the silent auction. Insect artwork, specimens, books, equipment are especially welcome. Proceeds go to CES treasury.
Potluck dinner will be held between 6:30pm and 7:30pm.
Meeting will begin at 7:30 pm followed by the featured speaker.
As always, exhibits are welcome!
I’ll be bringing one or two dishes made with insects for the potluck – maybe some spinach artichoke mealworm dip, or some cricket granola bars. And one of my plushies will be offered for the silent auction.
If you come, you’ll recognize our lab – we’ll be wearing our shirts.
I thought it would just be a cute addition to my collection of insect books, but it has really wonderful illustrations featuring a wide variety of behaviors and natural history. The author and illustrator really knew their caterpillars. The caterpillars are all based on real species found in North America. The illustrations feature eggs, first instars, morphological changes, defensive behaviors, molted skins, feeding behaviors – even frass flinging!
That caterpillar in the middle is clinging to the stem face down, and has twisted its rear end over its back in order to shoot its poop. This book was definitely written by an observant nature lover.
I’m calling this my new favorite book, and highly recommend it for anyone who likes caterpillars. I think the target age is about 5 or 6 years old… but… no one will judge you.
Gladys Conklin wrote a variety of children’s books on insects and other animals. Some titles include “I Watch Flies”, “When Insects are Babies”, and “I Caught a Lizard”. I want to buy them all!
My caterpillar colleage Sam Jaffe has created a kickstarter project – an ambitious plan to create a series of programs and events using live caterpillars for science education outreach. If he’s funded, he’ll do it all this summer!
Sam is an amazing photographer and great caterpillar wrangler. Please consider donating to his cause, or at least check out his work – his photos make caterpillars look nearly as cuddly as the plushies I sew!
We are so excited for the next pool throwdown against our rival entomology lab (well, it’s a friendly rivalry) after this month’s Connecticut Entomological Society meeting. We’ve got our own lab shirts, now.
I designed the shirts after a brainstorming session with the lab. We decided on a caterpillar, playing pool, wearing a cowboy hat. We were thinking of including a mustache but thought that would be a bit too much. The caterpillar species is Acronicta increta (indeed I couldn’t help but include one of my own study species).
This is depressing.
As some of you know, I have a sewing business on the side. I haven’t made anything in a few weeks, though, because grad school tends to get in the way of hobbies. But I feel inspired to make some caterpillar plushies this weekend. Stay tuned.
Introducing: the owl-caterpillar, by AnimaliaBizarre:
“Owl-Caterpillars (strigi-doptera) have been rumored among numerous world civilizations to be creatures of myth. Rumors suggest they can exist in the beards of ground dwarves and the powdered wigs of elderly ladies. They eat of lint and dander until they finally cocoon. It takes 150 years for an owl-caterpillar to germinate (which is probably why no one has seen it in this lifetime.) It’s final metamorphosis is still a potential, and yet to be imagined, mystery.”