That was the question a student had this morning.
The caterpillar was wiggling a bit, but didn’t look so good. Upon closer inspection, it appeared it had burst open, and something was actually… inside of it.
Without further ado, here is what happened next:
I have yet to identify the parasitoid, it appears to be a fly maggot of some sort. I will be back with an update if we put a name on it.
Yes, it had eaten all of the caterpillar’s insides.
No, the caterpillar is no longer alive.
[UPDATE] The maggot is in the family Tachinidae.
The fall semester has started, but instead of mourning the end of summer break, I’m quite excited to be teaching again. I am the TA for general entomology this fall, with my advisor as the instructor. It’s offered every other year, so I’ve had to wait patiently (and TA intro biology labs) for my chance to dive in again.
So far it seems like we’ve got a really motivated, enthusiastic class. Some of them already have experience working in the entomology collection, or with volunteering/working in our lab – they’re going to keep me on my toes, for sure.
For one weekend we embarked upon our traditional field trip, along with the Yale entomology class, to the Yale Forestry Camp at Great Mountain Forest in Norfolk CT. The purpose is to jump-start their insect collections, which make up the majority of their grade for the course. But it’s also a great time to learn collecting techniques, bond with classmates, meet other students/researchers, and just have fun outside. We had about 35 people at the camp, which was a large number of people to wrangle and feed, but we survived! We used just about every sort of insect trap device there is.
I thought I’d share some highlights from the trip.
Working in the laboratory.
We’ve had a few mini field trips locally since then, always a lot of fun, always a lot of cool insects.
Dermestid beetles (family Dermestidae) can either be a useful ally or a nuisance, depending on your point of view. There are several hundred species worldwide, and many have found ways to either enrich or aggravate our lives.
If you are interested in taxidermy or specimen preparation, these industrious beetles are one of the best ways to de-flesh and clean skeletons. Entire colonies are kept by hobbyists, universities and museum collections and put to use, both adults and larvae feasting on an array of carcasses. They especially enjoy hair, skin, and feathers.
Due to their knack for feeding on dead or decaying materials, they are essential outdoor decomposers. Some species prefer plants, some prefer animals, and some get rather esoteric in their choices (like specializing on praying mantis egg cases). Our knowledge of these ecosystem services also allows us to use them in forensic investigations.
But most people don’t think of these applications. They are more concerned with the “larder beetles” in their pantry, pouring out along with the cheerios into their cereal bowl. Or “carpet beetles” munching on wool coats, or silk scarves, and other natural fibers in their closet. Any open window is an invitation for a visit.
And if you’re an entomologist, the phrase “dermestid beetle” should strike fear into your heart. All the qualities that make these beetles desirable for cleaning vertebrate skeletons makes them especially destructive if let loose in an insect specimen collection. These beetles don’t just like the taste of skin and fur, they have quite a fondness for insect chitin and dried innards.
Every entomologist I know has horror stories of dermestid beetles infesting their collection. The main specimen collections here at UConn are chemical-free, meaning they have strict quarantine procedures in order to thwart these beetles and other pests. Specimen boxes must be frozen twice, if they’re allowed inside at all.
I was cleaning out a storage room for the entomology teaching lab, and came across a set of student specimen boxes. That had been overlooked since 1994. Needless to say, dermestid beetles had a feast. The boxes were absolutely filled with insect bits and old dermestid skins. Just about all of the specimens are ruined, and will be thrown away.
So, what should you do? In your home, make sure all food containers are tightly sealed and secured (anything that comes in a bag, I transfer to a jar). Store winter sweaters and other important clothes in sealed containers or plastic bags. Ensure all household screens are tightly fitting with no gaps.
For an insect collection, you can choose to use chemicals like mothballs, but they wear off after a while (I have personally observed collections with chemicals tacked into one corner… still filled with dermestid damage. See the first image above.) Your best bet is to keep the collection sealed in a tight wooden box or glass topped drawer. Cardboard boxes, such as we give students, should be temporary. When in doubt, if a collection will not be regularly used, keep the box(es) in a sealed plastic bag of some sort. Also keep workroom/lab windows closed, or ensure screens are tightly fitting. My advisor likes to say “dermestids smell insect specimens the way you smell Starbucks!” Which may or may not be true. Probably true.
I successfully avoided doing any work this weekend to celebrate my climb into my late 20s. This week also held the birthdays of several friends in my department, so we celebrated for a few days. It was a good mixture of all my favorite things: cocktails with the whales event at the Mystic aquarium, a hard workout at the gym, afternoon of crafting with friends, and margaritas with my advisor and lab buddy who just returned from a trip to the southwest. They had some crazy stories, and brought me back a teensy tiny pet vinegaroon. The bottle of bourbon is for scale (also a present from a friend). And yesterday I got to unwind by sewing most of the day.
So that brings my number of pets up to… something. Still don’t know exactly how many cockroaches I have.
Oh and the vinegaroon needs a name. Any suggestions?
If you hear the phrase “monkey slug”, your first thought is probably not of a caterpillar. But that is indeed the common name for Phobetron pithecium, a caterpillar/moth in the family Limacodidae.
Limacodidae are collectively known as the slug caterpillars due to their reduced legs and slimy looking underbelly. They even crawl by means of a liquified silk trail that they glide effortlessly across. So that is where the “slug” part of the name comes from. But “monkey”? No one is quite sure. The adults are called hag moths, which doesn’t sound very flattering, though they are adorable little moths.
I have never seen one of these caterpillars in the wild, however a friend of mine (Sam Jaffe of The Caterpillar Lab) was kind enough to part with a few of his fuzzy little charges. I have no use for them in my research, but they have been fun pets.
A few more facts:
They can cause allergic reactions in some people (I have not tested myself yet, but just look at those hairs and spines!). However they have glided across my hands with no reaction, so it would probably require rubbing the hairs into your skin.
They do have a head, but it is usually hidden.
They feed on a variety of trees and shrubs, mine are feeding on oak.
The “arms” can come off, the hairs are in fact embedded in a scaffold of some sort of slime that covers the body. This is a feature common to many limacodids.
Here are some photos I took of these guys today.
National Moth Week this year was July 19-27 (I wrote about some of my Moth Week adventures here, here, and here). I’ve come across a lot of great press and articles about Moth Week this year, and thought I’d put together a list of some of the coverage.
Shit you didn’t know about biology. Macabre Moths: The Infernal Nocturnals.
I wish I could write as well as this guy. Love all of his articles.
Wall Street Journal. Seeing the Merit in Moths.
An interview with David Grimaldi of the AMNH.
Charismatic Minifauna (Wired). Moth Week is Coming.
Bug Girl is the best!
This one was fun: Apparently someone at Fox News made fun of Moth Week (they sure do love science, don’t they). But then she apologized! The comments on the first article are gold. “What next, national maggot week?” Why, that actually sounds like a great idea.
And there were so many smaller press releases on blogs and local papers, it was truly heartening to see. I’m hoping to plan even more festivities in CT for National Moth Week next year.
I mentioned The Caterpillar Lab in an earlier post – earlier this month I finally got to see them in action at a show. I went up to VINS (Vermont Institute of Natural Science) on August 2nd to visit my friend/college roommate Alyssa, as she has been working there for the summer. She was a year ahead of me at McGill, and had just decided to switch to studying entomology when she met me. I love coincidences like that! We became inseparable weird-os who love bugs, working out, and shopping for shoes. Grad school (and life in general) has a way of wrenching people apart, but whenever we’re in the same region of North America we try to visit.
August 2nd was also the date of the Incredible Insect Festival hosted at VINS, featuring The Caterpillar Lab and a whole day of insect themed activities. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity to see parts of my world collide. And I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have another entomologist on hand for an insect festival.
Here is part of the Caterpillar Lab set up – tables decorated with bouquets of plants, each hosting a handful of caterpillars. Most were content to stay on their plants, while others were kept confined to cages (due to a propensity for wandering away). It’s really amazing that people get to see and interact with the caterpillars like this, and with such a huge variety! Yes the large cecropias are cool, but they also have daggers, monkey slugs, prominents, decorator caterpillars… the ones overlooked in more typical outreach programs and museums. There is also an army of dedicated workers/volunteers who keep the show humming.
One really neat feature is their video camera set up – whenever something cool is happening at the tables (there’s always something happening), they can show the live feed on large screens. Could be a caterpillar molting, pupating, feeding, or even with wasp larvae emerging from its body and spinning their cocoons (below).
I got to help with story time, games, and (my favorite), a bug hunt in a meadow. We had an amazing time teaching the kids (and their parents) how to catch butterflies and flies and beetles and ambush bugs (even some caterpillars!), and we had so many stories to tell. We were armed with butterfly nets and vials and field guides, answering questions and catching some insects ourselves.
Overall the festival was a great success. It also included demos on how to make nest boxes for native bees, lectures on pollinators, and other crafts and games. It was encouraging to see so many people attend, and to see such interest and excitement from the children. You never know who might get inspired enough to pursue entomology as a hobby or a career. I know I would have loved a program like this as a kid.
I’m hoping to do more outreach like this, especially through the Connecticut Entomological Society. Probably not this fall, as the semester is about to start (signalling the end of what little sanity I have at the moment), but I’m doing some brainstorming for the spring and next summer. If you have any ideas/suggestions for outreach events around CT, let me know!
I was lucky enough to be invited to be a guest speaker for a National Moth Week event held by the Friends of Taconic State Park in Copake Falls, NY. I grew up in upstate NY, but had never been to that region before. I spent most of the afternoon chatting with my wonderful hosts, eating yummy food, and then I gave my talk and spent the night looking for moths – I’ll hopefully get a chance to go back and explore the park during the day.
My talk was about how every week is moth week in my life, as well as how amateurs can help with our scientific endeavors. I couldn’t do my dissertation work without an army of collaborators around the country and around the world. I’m hoping I inspired a few more people to check their porch lights (or gas station lights). When it comes to basic natural history observations, science is accessible to everyone. And we need all the help we can get!
After the talk a few people stuck around to check out the moths. There were several blacklights, a mercury vapor light, and some bait painted on trees (and soaked into ropes).
One of the first visitors to the blacklight, a Hermit sphinx, Linteneria eremitus.One of the sheets, early in the night.Gathering around the sheet. Poke nature!The new president of the society, Brian Boom, was my gracious and enthusiastic host – and he was well liked by the Pandorus sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus). As usual, I had to pose with a moth on my nose. Darapsa myron. And a few of the other goodies we saw: Top row: Tolype velleda, Acrolophus sp., Herpetogramma pertexalis, Darapsa myron
Middle row: Linteneria eremitus, Haploa confusa, Prolimacodes badia, Lymantria dispar
Bottom row: Haploa clymene, Pantographa limata, Crambus sp., Idia aemula
What a great way to celebrate National Moth Week!
Moth Week continued for me in Keene NH, the home of The Caterpillar Lab, run by the caterpillar photographer/whisperer Sam Jaffe. Sam is a wonderful naturalist, who ambitiously has undertaken this caterpillar outreach project. Sam and his minions currently have a physical lab where they keep their livestock (hundreds of caterpillars!), which is periodically open to the public. They do caterpillar shows at farmer’s markets and museums, you can see their schedule on their facebook page.
Here is just one of their charges… a gigantic Citheronia regalis caterpillar. Also known as the hickory horned devil… for obvious reasons.
We help each other out by trading eggs and caterpillars, and that is always a good excuse for a visit. His intern Liz allowed us to blacklight at her place, and so the bug nuts gathered round. This pic of the sheet was pretty early in the night, it was really hopping by midnight!
It is the time of year for Catocala, the underwing moths. This big one is Catocala unijuga, the Once-Married Underwing (I sure wonder how it got that name?)We also got a few female dobsonflies (Corydalus cornutus), they look like they are straight out of a horror movie. And much more vicious than the males, who have larger, but ineffectual, mandibles.
Waiting at the sheet… We also got a few spiders… this fishing spider ate quite a few of our moths!We decided to take a break from circling the sheet for some gas station light hopping. Sam has a few favorite spots. Despite my enthusiasm, I fell asleep on the car ride (though I’m told I was muttering some weird things in my attempt to stay awake and make conversation). Luckily I rallied and arrived well rested and ready to catch some more moths. There was a big Antherea polyphemus waiting for us, as well as a wall covered in wonderful moths. Including this sphingid, the Hydrangea sphinx, Darapsa versicolor. We were very disappointed that it was a male. Still a nice find though! At the next stop we hit another jackpot – plenty of Acronicta moths for me, and a few other pretties.
I love the patterns on this one, I was excited to finally see one! The lettered habrosyne, Habrosyne scripta, in the family Drepanidae.
We ended up back at the sheet, where I snagged a few more moths. All of these vials contained a female Acronicta, pretty amazing for one night! I’m never disappointed collecting in NH. I did learn something interesting, we have noticed a pattern – the female Acronicta moths tend to come out earlier. Once we get to about midnight, it’s almost all males at the sheet.
Eventually we packed up, sorted moths, and got some sleep. Not a bad way to celebrate national moth week.