How to defend yourself

… against fresh fruit.

No, wait a minute. Pointed sticks? No, not that either…

Caterpillars have a variety of methods for defending themselves. When you are a soft squishy tube of yumminess that everything wants to eat, you need to take precautions. As a caterpillar you can be distasteful or toxic, hide with cryptic coloration, or adorn yourself with spines. But you do not have to be passive.

We have seen other caterpillars with nasty big pointy teeth (I’ve been watching too much Monty Python lately, can you tell?) here.

This is a caterpillar I came across doing my field work the other day. It is Hyperaeschra georgica, in the family Notodontidae. I noticed it twitching once I approached. And when I poked at it… well, see for yourself:

I bet that would freak out most birds or predatory insects! It always startles me a little bit when a caterpillar “attacks”, even though I know they cannot really hurt me. Well, some of them do have sharp mandibles and can give a good pinch.

I have also experienced the “look at my warning coloration, don’t eat me if you know what’s good for you” dance of another caterpillar, Phyllodesma americana, in the family Lasiocampidae. The lighting wasn’t very good in the lab, the pale patches on its underside are actually orange. Many insects use the combination of orange and black to warn predators about their distastefulness.

We will try to get a better video of this guy in action soon.

Have you seen any other caterpillar defense displays in the wild or in the lab? What is the strangest thing you have ever seen a caterpillar do? I was just reminded of this caterpillar I saw in Ecuador last year. When I came close, it contorted itself into a strange pose. Hmm.

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Posted on June 18, 2012, in Invertebrates, Lasiocampidae, Lepidoptera, Notodontidae. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Don’t forget about the Black Swallowtail caterpillars with their fleshy orange, parsley smelling horns that appear out of the top of their heads to thwart would – be predators.

  2. Ha! I tried to pick up a Pseudosphinx tetrio in Barbados and it got into a serious thrashing defense. And I’m ashamed to say that it totally worked on me. Watching something the size of my hand thrash around with a bring red head so large I could actually clearly see the mandibles scared me right out of picking it up. I’m getting too used to studying plants, things that move are starting to freak me out!

    • Wow! I don’t think I have seen one react like that. I play with them a lot when I visit the Virgin Islands. They tend to have really strong crochet hooks, which can be unnerving when you are trying to remove one from your hand or clothes. I bet even I would jump if one tried to bite me.

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