Category Archives: Noctuidae

Moth Week 2014 – Keene, NH

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.mothweek_1

Here is just one of their charges… a gigantic Citheronia regalis caterpillar. Also known as the hickory horned devil… for obvious reasons. mothweek_2

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!

mothweek_3It 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?)mothweek_4We 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. mothweek_5
Waiting at the sheet… mothweek_6We also got a few spiders… this fishing spider ate quite a few of our moths!mothweek_7We 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. mothweek_8Including this sphingid, the Hydrangea sphinx, Darapsa versicolor. We were very disappointed that it was a male. Still a nice find though!mothweek_9 At the next stop we hit another jackpot – plenty of Acronicta moths for me, and a few other pretties. mothweek_11

I love the patterns on this one, I was excited to finally see one! The lettered habrosyne, Habrosyne scripta, in the family Drepanidae. mothweek_10

A pretty little Acronicta lepusculina. mothweek_12

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. mothweek_13

Eventually we packed up, sorted moths, and got some sleep. Not a bad way to celebrate national moth week.

My little tigers

My supposed Acronicta hastulifera caterpillars are growing up. And growing into very convincing A. dactylina caterpillars.

I call them my little tigers

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.

Above and below

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Acronicta increta on Beech (Fagus). Collected at Cockaponset State Forest, CT

Stripey

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!

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Acronicta radcliffei. Freshly molted, still on molting mat.

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.

_DSC0123 copyThis 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.

Photo by Sam Jaffe

 

Hungry caterpillar, as usual

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Acronicta lobeliae, enjoying an oak leaf.

More travel!

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?

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One-eyed sphinx (Smerinthus cerisyi), came to a blacklight in Golden Gate Canyon, CO

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Dueling hummingbirds, Golden Gate Canyon, CO.

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Acronicta exempta, Castle Rock Canyon, CO. I captured 15 males that night, but no females!

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Our set-up at Castle Rock Canyon. I went blacklighting with a colleague who works at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, so we had lots of equipment to play with. It was the best night of blacklighting of the whole trip.

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Obligatory shot of the scenery. Just outside of Boulder, CO.

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Went up to Gold Hill with my family to see the town, the views, and have a delicious 6-course dinner.

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Click for a bigger view!! Somewhere on Rt. 70 west.

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Me and my mom <3

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Last stop – curation at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature! I got to sort some drawers of Acronicta, mostly unidentified and with other moths mixed in. I only got partway through after a few hours though, so I need to go back and finish!

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!

Fuzzy babies

Lots of fuzzy baby caterpillars here in the lab. Right now these two species look pretty similar, but the differences will start accumulating in the next few instars. Currently they are less than a week old. The first two photos are the babies from this post!

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Acronicta hastulifera, second instar

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Acronicta hastulifera, second instars

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Acronicta americana, second instars (and molting into third)

Beauty

I love this caterpillar. I wish that more than one had survived from the eggs the mother laid, so I could preserve one as a voucher. I was considering preserving this one, but today I noticed it was beginning to pupate in the bottom of its container. I guess I will wait for it to emerge as an adult.

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Acronicta sp. (brumosa? afflicta?), mother collected in Big Bend, Texas

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Acronicta sp. (brumosa? afflicta?), mother collected in Big Bend, Texas

Babies everywhere

300. That is how many little Acronicta hastulifera caterpillars hatched this weekend (click here to see the mother). Actually, there were probably more than 300, but I stopped counting.

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Developing eggs, two days before hatching.

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Lots of little first instars.

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As you can see by the giant holes in some eggs, many of them ate their egg-shells before wandering off.

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Babies on their host plant, alder (Alnus). Exploring a bit before settling down to eat.

The big hatching event happened on Sunday. It’s a good thing I came into the lab, because by Monday they would have been dead without food. I then became incredibly nervous that I might not have given them the right host plant, but they have been producing a large amount of frass (poop). Hurray! I get so protective of my caterpillar babies. This is what they look like today:

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Frass machines.

They are going to become wonderfully fuzzy caterpillars as they grow. I can’t wait!

Green and orange and purple

Here are some more fun photos of Acronicta lepetita from Texas. Some of them turn orange during their final instar, some stay green, some even turn purple-ish. Luckily this species is quite sedentary, so it is relatively easy to photograph. This first shot is one of my favorites:

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Smile!

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Orange and green siblings.

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This one was not interested in being a model, it just wanted to continue nibbling the leaf edge.

Many caterpillars are known to turn purple-ish, red-ish, or pink-ish just before pupation. However this orange color change happens while the caterpillar is still feeding, sometimes up to a week before pupation. It happens in Acronicta vinnula as well. I wonder why a caterpillar would want to be orange while still feeding on green vegetation?

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