Can you spot the caterpillar?

I went exploring today, but instead of using my net or beating sheet, I focused on “zenning” for insects. It’s a term used by some lepidopterists I know, referring to calmly looking among the foliage to spot caterpillars. This way they can be observed in their natural positions instead of being shaken off. Of course, this takes lots of training and knowledge (and luck).

Can you spot the caterpillar here?

Here it is!

And a close up:

It is Synchlora aerata, the camouflaged looper (also known as the wavy-lined emerald as an adult). It is in the family Geometridae, the inch-worms.

An article I wrote about these caterpillars was published in the most recent issue of Kaatskill Life magazine. If you live in the Catskills region of NY, you can find it in various local shops.

Fore those who cannot get access to the magazine, here is my little story:

Being known as a girl who likes and studies bugs, I often get interesting creatures brought to me for identification. On a warm summer day last year, I heard a rapid knock at the door. I was greeted by the two young boys who live down the street, and as usual one of them had a plastic cage clutched in his hands. “We have some caterpillars for you!” they exclaimed with excitement. Curious, I peered inside their little cage filled with twigs and flowers. “What caterpillars? Are you sure they’re still in there?” I asked, as I could not see any. “What do you mean, there are six of them!” they replied adamantly. Not to be thwarted, I started pulling out the twigs, and only upon closer inspection did I notice one of the trickiest caterpillars around – Synchlora aerata, the Camouflaged looper. They are in the family Geometridae, the inch worms. Like other inch worms they only have two pairs of prolegs, and walk in an “inching” motion. However unlike their relatives, they have a unique and creative way of camouflaging themselves.

When you are a soft tasty caterpillar, you need to find ways to escape predation. Some do this through poisonous spines, internal toxins, and warning coloration. Others attempt to blend into their surroundings through cryptic colors, patterns, and behavior. The Camouflaged loopers take blending in one step further – they remove bits of leaves and flower petals from the plant they are on, and attach the pieces to themselves! This process is aided by silk produced from glands near their mouths, ensuring the decorations are secure. They will change their fashions depending on the plant they are currently feeding upon, to be sure they are a close match to their environment. Since they feed on a variety of composite flowers and other flowering plants, they have many options to choose from. In a manner we can relate to, they do not like to feel exposed. If you introduce a bare caterpillar to an assortment of flower petals or even little scraps of paper, you can watch them busily cover themselves.

Camouflaged loopers also need to redress themselves every time they molt into the next instar, shedding the plant matter along with their skin. They have several instars before they pupate, for which they create a shelter out of silk and plant matter to hide within. After about two weeks they emerge as beautiful green moths. The adults are known as Wavy-lined Emeralds for the dainty white patterns on their wings.

This resourceful caterpillar can most often be found on composite flowers such as daisies, black-eyed susans, and goldenrod. After the boys shared their discovery with me I went hunting for my own, and found them to be plentiful among the wildflowers along the road. They were interesting to observe and easy to rear into adulthood. The next time you think you are simply looking at a pretty flower, take a closer look, there might be a decorated caterpillar lurking.

Posted on July 12, 2011, in Geometridae, Invertebrates, Lepidoptera. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Fascinating. I wonder if they are this far north? (Nova Scotia) I’ll have to check it out! Thanks for the cute story and the information. ~karen

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Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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

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