Category Archives: Acronictinae

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

upperandlower

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!

_DSC0105 copy

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

lobeliaea_1

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?

20130713_102130

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

20130713_105913

Dueling hummingbirds, Golden Gate Canyon, CO.

20130713_221955

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

20130713_230226

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.

20130714_124808

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

20130714_183135

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

20130716_153008

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

20130716_153308

Me and my mom <3

20130712_121354

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!

hastulifera_1

Acronicta hastulifera, second instar

hastulifera_2

Acronicta hastulifera, second instars

americana_1

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.

brumosa (3)

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

brumosa (4)

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.

hastulifera_1

Developing eggs, two days before hatching.

hastulifera_2

Lots of little first instars.

hastulifera_3

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

hastulifera_4

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:

hastulifera_5

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:

lepetita_orange (2)

Smile!

lepetita_orange (3)

Orange and green siblings.

lepetita_orange (4)

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?

Happy egg dance

On Saturday night I joined a bunch of entomologists for the 5th Annual Moth Ball in Massachusetts. Lights, sheets, cameras, beer, hotdogs, snacks, and tents for staying overnight. What could be better?

I was also on a mission. One species my advisor has been telling me I need to get ahold of is Acronicta hastulifera. As an adult it is nearly indistinguishable from Acronicta dactylina, though their caterpillars are quite different. The best way to make an ID, then, would be to catch a caterpillar and rear it to adulthood, or to get eggs from a female and raise the caterpillars. This is not always easy to do.

I found a few Acronicta females at the moth ball, nothing terribly exciting. Though it wasn’t long before a friend of mine approached with the grand prize in his hands (from a nearby sheet): Acronicta hastulifera. A big fat female! Success! The rest of the night paled in comparison to that moment.

When I awoke in my tent the next morning (after only a few hours of sleep), the first thing I did was check her container for eggs. About a dozen big green eggs dotted the sides of the vial. Woohoo! Last night I set her up in a larger container, and she really let loose. I estimate 200+ eggs.

hastulifera (1)

Momma moth and some of her eggs.

hastulifera (2) copy

So many eggs! My favorite colors, too!

At first I was a little worried that all of the eggs were remaining green. With other species that is sometimes a sign they are infertile. But once they gain some spots and other coloration, you know the larva is developing inside. Like this:

hastulifera (3) copy

A close-up, taken with my little Canon Powershot through a dissecting scope eyepiece.

I hadn’t seen a spot pattern quite like that before (the things on top are the mother’s scales).

hastulifera (4) copy

Some of the freshly laid eggs, before gaining their spots.

Now I must be patient and wait for them to hatch. Most Acronicta eggs take five or six days. I’ll be ready with some Alder (their favorite food), and my camera to get pics of the little ones.

Saurian Obsessions

Life, love, and limb-reduced fossorial skinks

I spell it nature

Trying to make sense of the world through science and language.

Connecticut Entomological Society

Promoting insect research, conservation, and outreach

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers