Category Archives: Notodontidae

End of the season

It’s finally fall here in New England, and the insects are on their way out – either dying, or bundling up for the winter. However there are always a few that cling to life through the first few cold nights, unwilling to admit that summer is over (I know that feeling quite well).

Here are a few caterpillars I found while walking in a nearby park at dusk.

First is Schizura unicornis, the Unicorn Prominent, of the family Notodontidae. In this photo you can see the “horn” from which the name is derived. It looks as if the caterpillar is molting, with the old head capsule just barely clinging to the head.

This species overwinters as a larva, fashioning a protective cocoon in leaf litter. They wait until spring to actually pupate, which is unusual amongst caterpillars (typically pupation occurs in the fall, and the winter is spent as a pupa). I imagine these caterpillars will be above ground feeding until their host plants succumb to the cold.

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These caterpillars appear to be Hyphantria cunea, the Fall Webworm, of the family Erebidae. There were several fuzzy clumps of them on various plants, surrounded by loose webbing. These guys will continue to live gregariously in their messy webbed homes until they are ready to pupate in preparation for the winter. 20140920_190404 copyI’ll keep on the lookout for others, there are still plenty of hardy, determined caterpillars out there.

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Texas Day 1: Abilene

To keep costs down, Ben and I decided to camp for the entirety of our Texas trip (aside from two nights at a colleague’s house). This made our trip feel even more adventurous. We’re used to showing up to a research station with dorms, a kitchen, and a laboratory with supplies. This trip was quite different! We brought my tent, and bought some cheap sleeping pads and sleeping bags at Walmart when we arrived. We also bought some batteries to run our lights, and parts to build a light trap.

We arrived in Dallas, loaded up the car with supplies and food, and drove out to Abilene State Park. I truly did not believe we would fit all of our supplies into a compact rental car, but we did.

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Ben at the campsite

The area seemed scrubby, a little dry, and an odd mix of forest, scrub, and almost-desert habitat. The air was hot and humid. There were only a few other people in the campground, as this is not an ideal time to be camping in Texas. As soon as the tent was set up, we set off to explore.

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Adorable little mantis!

We saw a few caterpillars just by walking around – like this little notodontid.

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Lochmaeus bilineata caterpillar

Our daytime caterpillar search wasn’t terribly fruitful though, so we held out hope for the night. We weren’t too impressed with what the light brought in (our campsite had electricity!), but we did have fun (and strained our necks) looking for caterpillars. We were spooked by a few raccoons, but otherwise didn’t run into any trouble.

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Ben at the sheet

Our first big find turned out to be an Acronicta caterpillar! I spotted it sitting on a branch just above my head. I instantly recognized its fuzzy gray body as belonging to Acronicta lobeliae.

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Acronicta lobelieae

But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. After taking this photo, I reached toward the caterpillar to pick it up. It instinctively dropped to the ground, where it landed directly into an antlion pit! It thrashed around as the antlion tried dragging it under the sand. I quickly scooped up the caterpillar but it appeared paralyzed or dead – frozen into a half curled position.

I kept the poor guy anyway, and within about an hour it was back to normal. Whew!

Here are some other pretty caterpillars we came across:

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Ianassa sp.

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Asterocampa sp.

We weren’t blown away by our first night, but I was quite happy to have an Acronicta caterpillar in hand. We stayed one night, and the next day continued our journey west, to Fort Davis.

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.

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.

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