Monthly Archives: May 2011

Eating machines

I went to check on my Actias luna caterpillars… and found them to be a little hungry.
They sure know how to eat!

And look at those adorable little faces…I have not been keeping track of instars on these, as they are not part of my research. I’m keeping them just for fun, and to hopefully give them a head-start if they’re released – the adult was collected in another state, so I don’t want to release them here, so we might mail some back! I’m not sure if I can keep up with their demand for food as they get bigger, though. The last round of stragglers hatched, and I’m up to 105! If anyone at/near UConn wants some caterpillars to raise, please let me know and stop by. They would be great as a summer camp or classroom demonstration, as long as you have some black gum or hickory plants nearby. You’ll have to kill the adults, though, as we don’t want to mess with the population by bringing in genetic material from another part of the country. The kids won’t have to know!

Acronicta oblinita – growing up

I can already tell these guys are going to have character, and not just because I took a peak at their page in the caterpillar guide!
Fuzzy and striped, they inspired me enough to make them the banner of my blog.

Cute and tiny and eating like it’s their job, most of them are doing wonderfully. A bunch did not survive, perhaps not getting food soon enough after hatching? Or maybe I was too rough with the paint brush?

Here they are close up, a little bigger (but still 1st instars) and with even more personality. Even though their bodies are larger, their heads are still the same size, which only change when they molt.

I got to watch a bunch of them as they finished up their molts into the second instar. They’re fuzzier and stockier, still with the banded pattern. You can see some of them still have their head capsules stuck to their hairs! While the rest of the body scrunches off sort of like a snake shedding its skin, the head coverings pop off. They are easier to measure this way, instead of on the living caterpillar, but when they are very small they can be hard to find (especially for species that are white/clear in the early instars). Note that when they first shed, they are pale yellow and brown – but as they toughen up, they become more white and black. Their head capsules start out yellowish (like the guy on the bottom right), and then darken.I am very interested in watching this species change as it grows, so I am preserving a few of each instar in alcohol, and trying to get good photos. It’s tricky when they’re so tiny, and I don’t have a very good camera at the moment, but playing with the scope has been fun so far, and I can see the basic patterns.

Acronicta americana – growing up

You saw in this post what Acronicta americana eggs look like through development, and here are the first instars! Hungry little guys already skeletonizing a red maple leaf. Crazy how such plump little caterpillars came out of such colorful flat eggs… I wish I could have seen them actually hatching.

They started out greenish/whitish/purplish, with sparse long hairs. Hard to imagine these turning into the big white fuzzballs I know they become… but they’re on their way.

Today I noticed some were larger and more opaque. Still missing the characteristic dark tufts, I wonder when those will appear?And even displaying the classic Acronicta resting position!So far so good, I’m excited to watch them grow.

Lazy moths

Here are some visitors who didn’t have the motivation to fly away from the sheet as daylight approached.
I hope they take off soon… the chickadees have found the buffet.

First is a pretty arctiid – Lophocampa caryae, the hickory tussock moth.
I’m still getting used to all the changes with Arctiidae now being a subfamily and all that…

This one is sneaky… I thought it was some sort of arctiid, but it’s actually a notodontid! Furcula borealis.
(ID thanks to dougeee on flickr)

And an adorable fuzzy lasiocampid, Phyllodesma americana. I love how they hold their wings… hardly looks like a moth at all! And that’s the whole point, I suppose.

Actias luna – hatching

I’m only two for three on getting lunas to my light… no luck last night. Oh well! I’ve got plenty of young’ns to take care of…

One day we had a guest in the lab – a tattered female Actias luna (luna moth) who had been collected by my advisor.
She was kept in a big paper bag, in which she laid a few dozen eggs.

And the eggs have hatched!
(The following photos were taken with my digital camera through the eyepiece of a scope)
The funniest part was I could HEAR them chewing out of the eggs. Their little jaws were working fast!
They all hatched over the course of four days… a few stragglers hatched last night.
Wiggling and wiggling… it was fun watching their folded up hairs springing out, their plump bodies expanding, legs waving in the air. And then… bam! Cute caterpillar!
This closeup is deceiving, they were about 6mm long.Now I bet you’re thinking – oh man, I wish I could have seen that!
Wish granted:
(it gets exciting around 2:50)

You can imagine how giddy I was to get this footage. My camera actually ran out of battery power as I was filming the first attempt, but a fellow lab member let me borrow his camera.

Two for two

I have a blacklight and a sheet set up outside my apartment to (hopefully!!!) get my hands on some female Acronicta.
My neighbor’s cat, Sid, has been helping me.

And here I am, on my third night of staying up too late (I usually get to bed around 10:30), with no luck so far.
It’s not like there has been a lack of insect visitors, though.
I have an extension cord running outside, so my screen door cannot close all the way… meaning I am collecting an interesting assortment of invertebrate life in my apartment. Mostly tiny flies and moths freaking out around my ceiling lights. Luckily the mosquitoes have refrained from joining the party.

There are some neat things outside, too. Very pretty arctiids, geometrids, pyralids, notodontids… and of course an assortment of beetles, flies, caddisflies, mayflies, and spiders.

And then… the luna moths.
That’s right, in two nights, I’ve attracted two lunas!
The first one, I didn’t get a picture of until the next morning. I was so tempted to keep him… but I figured such a studly moth deserves to go out and find a mate.And then this morning I discovered this pretty lady on the stone wall just a few feet away from my sheet. I hope she goes off to lay a lot of eggs! I have enough of my own, as you’ll see soon… (excuse my hair, I had just washed it)I wonder if I’ll get another tonight?
*sips beer, waits*

Acronicta oblinita – eggs

This is the third species that hatched while I was away, causing me to scramble to get them situated and happy.
Right now they’re munching on their black birch leaves, but this is how they began…

The Acronicta oblinita eggs started out flat, just like A. americana. Not quite as bright, but similarly patterned with brown spots. Again, more like sand dollars than typical caterpillar eggs.When the mass hatching occurred, they lagged behind enough for me to get some photos of them about to emerge. Here is one with a clearly visible head, and hairs sprawling into the edges of the egg. Looks like his neighbor had already made his escape.And some little ones hatching. If you want to see what they look like when they finally emerge, you’ll have to be patient! I will update on these guys soon!

Acronicta americana – eggs

My favorite color is green, in case you couldn’t tell.
So I was quite impressed when I saw these eggs laid by Mrs. Acronicta americana… (all the following images were created with a camera, scope, and automontage software)

*blink* What’s with that neon color? And the clear edges? And why do they look more like sand dollars than caterpillar eggs?
As they grew, most of them acquired a mottled brown coloration that was even more bizarre. I mean seriously, what right does this thing have calling itself an egg? It’s a colorful pancake. Since the green ones are still around, we’re guessing they were for some reason infertile. But the colorful ones…
Well, you heard the story of the discombobulated hatching/food plant acquisition adventure. Luckily, some of the A. americana were still developing, so I could get cool pictures.

Here is one with a bit of the brown pattern left – becoming SWIRLS. I couldn’t come up with something this bizarre looking if I tried. And if you squint, you can make out the two sets of eyes and mouth in the middle.

And becoming more caterpillar-like. I guess they need that extra room in the edges for their fancy long hair. The eyes and mouth are now clearly visible. The brown guts were actual moving the entire time I was trying to photograph them, so they came out kind of blurred… I wish I had gotten a video of that movement, it was fascinating.

So here they are, some almost ready, some taking their sweet time.

“let me out of heeeerrrreeee!”

Comachara cadburyi

One of my major goals is to rear caterpillars from eggs in order to track their life histories – number of molts, sizes of head capsules, any variation in coloration or behavior. I am attempting to collect my own females to get eggs, so far with no luck. However my advisor has gotten some females to lay eggs for me, and I have a few batches on the way from other collectors.

Here are the eggs of a relatively drab, unassuming little moth, Comachara cadburyi (Cadbury’s lichen moth). It is in the subfamily Acronictinae, and it is very rare for them to lay eggs in captivity. Out of a handful of females, only one laid for us, but wow did she do a great job. For a sense of scale, those are her own wing scales stuck to the eggs. The eggs were barely the size of an “o”, this image was taken through a scope with automontage software.And after about a week, they hatched into approximately 50 adorably tiny barely visible caterpillars. Now, there is a bit more of a story to this. I was away for the weekend, figuring not too much could happen in two days. Right? Wrong. All three of my egg lots (this species, and two others) hatched! My advisor was gone for a few more days, so I was thrown into a panic. I don’t know my trees very well yet, and the field guide gave so many options for each, I didn’t know what would be best to pick. Luckily, another student was working here, whose mother studies plants. I was able to follow them to their house to collect the three plants I needed… after much rushing around, I was finally able to transfer the larvae into new containers with food, and they happily settled in.

Here are a few of the caterpillars, starting to feed on Nyssa sylvatica (black gum). This leaf was about 1″ long. Notice the feeding damage – when caterpillars start out this small, they can only eat through one layer of the leaf, leaving little “windows”.They’re slowly growing and thriving, if I’m lucky I’ll get to rear them all the way through!


Welcome to the Caterpillar Blog!

I’m Brigette – that’s me on the side over there.
Yes, that’s a real caterpillar. Pseudosphinx tetrio, found in the Caribbean.

I have dabbled in blogging for several years now, but always kept my focus pretty broad. I thought it would be fun to talk about whatever I was in the mood for – science, sewing, my pets, you name it. In fact, that made it much harder to write effectively. I’m the sort of person who cannot just sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil and draw, or write, I need a plan. A purpose. A hint of inspiration and guidance. I’m a very organized person, and I detest purposeless clutter.

So here, I will focus my energies. I am a graduate student in my first year, starting my forays into caterpillar research. I will be studying the systematics and evolutionary biology of a subfamily of Noctuids, Acronictinae. To start out, I don’t know too much about caterpillars other than what I’ve learned in classes. I used to rear them occasionally when I was younger, but couldn’t really get into them because of the lack of field guides available. Even when we got the internet in my early teens, it was nearly impossible to identify caterpillars. But now I’ve become enveloped into an entirely new world full of possbilities! My advisor, Dr. Wagner, has written the Caterpillars of Eastern North America field guide, which I highly suggest you all purchase! I am becoming increasingly inspired and enthusiastic… but… I do not claim to be an expert by any means (…yet…). Here I will document my adventures in caterpillar rearing and research.

A few things you will probably notice about me as I write: I get very excited. About everything. And I use a lot of exclamation points!

Other tidbits:
-All photos, unless otherwise stated, are taken by me. You may freely post photos or entire posts as long as they link back here, but any other use requires my permission! Everything in blog posts are also posted on my flickr page (see the “Gallery” tab above).
-There will be guest posts by other members of the lab.
-I probably will not be any good at identifying caterpillars if you have mystery photos you want identified. My advisor’s book, and are both great resources.

My first bunch of posts are going to be me playing catch-up… lots of great larval development happening in the lab the past few weeks!

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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