Author Archives: Brigette
Sadly I do not have any carnivorous caterpillars of my own (though some caterpillars in our lab turn cannibalistic in times of stress), but I came across this article on some awesome caterpillars in Hawaii. Some species in the genus Eupethecia have evolved a taste for other tasty insects. Watch the GIFs, learn, and enjoy!
Surprise surprise, right?
The caterpillar lab has been humming along. My advisor was away for a month to explore the southwest and collect a few hundred caterpillars for his next field guide… meanwhile a few lab members and I kept things running around here. Collaborators began sending me more and more material (I currently have about two hundred caterpillars in my care). I even started some real data-gathering experiments!
My advisor returned this past weekend and the lab has been in a frenzy. Jars of caterpillars and bags of plants everywhere. Boiling specimens and trying to not forget about them lest they fry on the hot plate. Urgent requests to run outside and grab a branch of the oak tree out behind the building (or the milkweed down the street, or the birch by the pond, or the alder at the stop sign…).
Here is the lab table right now, actually looking remarkably clean and organized. There are several boxes of caterpillar vials on nearby shelves:
And my caterpillar station:
It is amazing how easy it is to get caught up in the daily grind of feeding caterpillars, cleaning out poop, setting up freshly hatched first instar caterpillars, taking photos, collecting plants, etc. Sometimes I nearly forget exactly what I am supposed to be doing with these guys – experiments! Once I get some pictures organized I’ll let you know what I’m up to… it’s about defensive behaviors. So far so good, and hopefully I’ll have enough data to present something interesting at the Entomological Society of America conference in November. Fingers crossed.
The Bug Chicks (Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker) are two talented entomologists, currently involved in a great deal of public outreach. Their website has 50 educational videos and a blog. And now they are trying to raise money for something that I always dreamed of doing myself – a TV show about insects and other arthropods that live in the USA!
I’m glad they’re actually putting into action something that always seemed like a far off dream to me. They are working with the help of Project Noah and National Geographic, but need your help too. They have an Indiegogo campaign going and still have a lot of money left to raise. If you want to see a fun educational show about arthropods that live in your backyard (that you probably didn’t even know existed), please help them out.
My supposed Acronicta hastulifera caterpillars are growing up. And growing into very convincing A. dactylina caterpillars.
A. hastulifera have frosted hairs (hence the common name “The Frosted Dagger”) which these caterpillars do not have. A. dactylina caterpillars have fluffy orange/brown bands, while A. hastulifera have more diffuse orange and gray hairs. They are trickier to distinguish in early instars (see these posts for pics), but at this point, I’m convinced this species is A. dactylina.
Goes to show just how difficult it is to tell the adults apart, that both Dave and I misidentified the mother moth.
One species on my “must rear because it is so totally awesome” list is Acronicta radcliffei. It is a very close mimic of one or more species in the genus Datana (family Notodontidae), and it appears to be aposematic. Such stark yellow, red, and black markings typically advertise toxicity. This month I got my wish!
I went caterpillar collecting with another lab at Cockaponset state forest two weeks ago. We were all helping to hunt for the various caterpillar species we all are studying. We knew A. radcliffei, a relatively rare species, had been found in the area before. I wasn’t sure how optimistic to be, but sure enough, a group from the other lab snagged two of them! They were both still in their green and red, early instar color form – but by the next day they had both molted into their final instar, colorful vestments.
One of them mysteriously died while I was on my trip to Colorado, but the other thrived.
This caterpillar pupated before my experimental protocol (for testing palatability) was finalized, so I will have to wait until later in the summer or next year to test whether this species is truly chemically protected. I wonder if those colors are a true advertisement, or if it is bluffing?
For comparison, here is a Datana caterpillar, thought to be noxious to predators.
I know, I haven’t even finished my stories about the Texas trip, and now I’ve gone to Colorado for more moth and caterpillar wrangling! All the pictures and stories will keep me busy for a while. Recently got home after a week of beautiful mountain views, black lighting, caterpillar hunting, rainstorms, great people, visiting collections, and spending time with my aunt (who lives in Boulder) as an added bonus. My mom accompanied me for part of the trip, and was a great sport about helping me find collecting locations.
I started by flying into Denver late Thursday night (a trip fraught with nearly missing flights, booking the wrong hotel, and a long but interesting cab ride). I met up with my advisor in the morning and we hashed out our plans. Nearly everything had to be improvised due to the weather and who could meet with us. Before I had started grad school this approach would have sent me into a panic attack, but by now the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-approach (championed by both my advisor and my boyfriend) is standard. We visited several collaborators, hunted for caterpillars, and set up sheets at night before parting ways – I stayed a few extra days to be with my family.
Here are some highlights from the trip. You will notice a severe lack of caterpillars – there were hardly any to be found! Not sure if it was the weather or the time of year?
I had a wonderful time in Colorado, and really hope it’s not too long before I can visit again. Besides, next time I need to get some female Acronicta and some eggs!
This great video was shot by my friend Sam Jaffe, expert caterpillar wrangler. He is spending his summer bringing caterpillars to farmers’ markets and science museums as entomology outreach for children. He specializes in the big ones, like this Hyalophora cecropia caterpillar. He managed to catch it as it was molting into the next instar:
He’s also an indefatigable moth hunter and finder-of-caterpillars-on-the-undersides-of-leaves. If you are in the northeast and want to see one of his shows, check out his facebook page: The Caterpillar Lab.