Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Fuzzy

It’s been cold in North Carolina recently.  REALLY cold as far as this Arizona gal is concerned!  It somehow seems appropriate that one of the most recent insects sightings I’ve made was already wearing a downy coat:

Acronicta americana caterpillar

American dagger moth caterpillar

That’s Acronicta americana, the American dagger moth.  Pretty cute little guy, but if you follow Brigette Zacharczenko’s fabulous Caterpillar Blog, you’ve learned that many of the Acronicta species have tiny stinging hairs hidden down in that fluff.  I tend to assume the worst and leave all fuzzy caterpillars alone, so I just watched this little guy inch its way down the tree and marveled at how fuzzy it was.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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Adventures with Autumn Arthropods

When I moved to North Carolina, I was excited to see a real fall.  The trees are changing colors and we’ve had some gloriously crisp nights, but I have to admit I expected it to be cooler at this point.  It’s getting to be late October, yet there are still days when I get so warm that I shed clothes down to the base layer.  I also expected most of the insects to be gone by now, but that hasn’t been the case at all!  The dragonfly season is largely over as I’ve seen only one lone green darner and one blue dasher at the pond over the last month, but there are otherwise lots of insect activity still.  Let me give you a brief overview of some of the highlights of the last month.

This is cheating a bit as this was the live butterfly exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, but I got to see my first butterfly emerge from its pupa in several years:

A beautiful owl butterfly!  It was shocking how fast that little guy wiggled out of its pupal case and puffed its wings out too – under 2 minutes from a shriveled butterfly to this.  Wow.  Nature is amazing.  Truly.  The macro capabilities of my iPhone without any adapters leave much to be desired, however.

I’ve seen more of these…

Chinese mantids over the past month than I’ve seen in my entire life!  This beauty was incredibly pregnant and I’m sure she laid a huge egg case out in the prairie somewhere after she was re-released back into the wild after her trip to BugFest.

I have two eighth grade volunteers who are doing a service learning project with me in the citizen science center in the museum where I work.  We promote a new citizen science project, or group of related projects, each week.  A few weeks ago, we promoted monarch butterfly projects and I was shocked that I was able to find so many of these out and about still:

What sort of self-respecting butterfly is still in the caterpillar phase in the middle of October?  Crazy!  I haven’t seen any larvae since then, but up until the last few days I’d seen many adults flying around.  Last Thursday I saw a good 50 or 60 of them in just a few hours!  Some were tagged with the little Monarch Watch tags (thanks to our trusty 10-year-old butterfly catcher/tagger – he is awesome at it!), and some had yet to have found themselves in the clutches of citizen scientists eager to report their findings.  Is seeing monarchs on October 19 strange?  I really don’t know yet.

Speaking of pollinators… I walked through the prairie yesterday (it was my weekend to work) and stood there for a moment, marveling at the incredible sound the bees, wasps, and flies were making as they gathered nectar and spread plant reproductive cells bits about.  Bumblebees still make me happy every time I see them, and probably always will:

Look at that cute little fuzzy butt!  Bumblebees are adorable.  I have been amazed at how very many pollinators, like the bumblebees, are still out, but I suppose I shouldn’t when vast swaths of the prairie look like this:

Wow!  There are a lot of opportunities for a pollinator to both dine and spread plant genetics around out there!  Those are frost asters, in case you were wondering.  I’m slowly learning my prairie plant species, so I feel the need to show off my latest bit of acquired plant knowledge.  :)

Speaking of reproduction… One of the most exciting of the natural events I witnessed in the past month was the rise of the stinkhorns after a series of soaking rains.  If this doesn’t remind you of a particular anatomical part, I don’t know what will:

Then there are these:

Those are actually commonly called dog phallus mushrooms.  It might be a little hard to see, but flies LOVE stinkhorns, and both of these fine specimens have flies on them.  It’s nice being in a place where things like this actually have a shot at growing.  Shortly before I moved away from Arizona, we had a big rain and a mushroom popped up in my backyard.  It was the first mushroom I’d seen growing in the wild for a few years and I was SO excited!  Now I can step outside on any given day and typically find 5-10 species.  It’s great!

But this blog isn’t about mushrooms.  It’s about insects.  There were a lot of insects at the North Carolina State Fair, where I helped out with the museum’s tent.  This fine specimen was in the garden exhibit:

Love the creative use of recycled materials!  There were also a ton of these around:

Adults using them outnumbered kids 3 to 1.  I found that very amusing, and happily took a photo of a pair of women who asked if I could get a shot of them as the butterfly and bee.  I love it when these sorts of things get used by adults more than kids.  I’ve even considered making one for a party sometime and setting up a little photo booth with it.  I think it would be heavily used!

For all the ant loving people out there, I got to see a really cool battle between an ant colony and a termite colony recently:

The ants won.  Handily.  I watched several termites get stung by the ants and it looked awful.  Poor little guys…

Finally, I was photographing some moss sporophytes yesterday when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  It was this lovely creature:

… crawling down a moss-covered tree trunk.  That’s the American dagger moth, Acronicta americana.  Awesome caterpillar!  But, I say it again: what sort of self-respecting moth is still in the caterpillar stage as of October 21?  I can only hope it was headed down the tree to find a nice, cozy place to pupate for the winter.

I suppose I should be grateful that it’s still warm enough to see butterflies and grasshopper and bumblebees out, but I do hope it cools down more soon.  I have a whole store of sweaters ready to go that I rarely got to wear in Arizona.  Come on, North Carolina: bring on the winter!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Don’t Touch!

Have you ever tried petting one of those furry little cacti, the ones with the cute white hairs all over them?  Many people have learned how unpleasant it can be to pet a cute little furry cactus because those hairs hide a bunch of sharp spines inside.  Same deal with this adorable little critter:

Flannel moth caterpillar

Flannel moth caterpillar

It might look all cute and fluffy, but flannel moth caterpillars are nasty little buggers!  Underneath all that fur is a bunch of painful stinging hairs.  Tricky, tricky!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Caterpillar Camouflage

Today I have a short post for you!  I was out collecting with my students during class last week and one of them took us to a nice spot on campus, a secluded little courtyard of one of the old buildings with a handful of citrus trees.  We looked around and found some stink bugs on a tree, some butterfly cocoons hanging off the buildings, and some spingtails.  One of my students found this:

Papilio cresphontes

Papilio cresphontes

If you think this looks like something that was ejected from the back end of a bird, you’re not alone!  This is the caterpillar of the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes).  As you might imagine, looking like bird droppings has its advantages.  This caterpillar blends very well into the background and it is hard to recognize that it is an insect at all.  That’s the whole point of looking like bird droppings!  Any insectivore (an organism that eats insects) looking for a tasty caterpillar to eat is likely to pass right by this one because it looks so much like something else – and something most animals wouldn’t consider eating.  The appearance of this caterpillar is part of its defense against predators.  If it stays still, most predators won’t even notice it’s there.

But say something happens to bump into the caterpillar (such as an insect systematics student looking for insects for her collection) or otherwise detects the caterpillar’s presence.  Then the caterpillar brings out it’s backup defense!  It’s depicted in this video:

That little orange slimy looking thing that pops out of the caterpillar is called an osmeterium.  Normally, it’s hidden in a pouch inside swallowtail caterpillars, right behind the head.  When disturbed, the caterpillar can squeeze some of it’s hemolymph into the osmeterium, causing it to pop out of the pouch.  The everted osmeterium is then waved at the predator.  Now how might this little organ be useful in deterring predators that might want to eat the caterpillar?  It’s covered in potently stinky chemicals!  Any animal that gets a big whiff of a foul smelling substance from something it’s considering eating, especially from something that looks a whole lot like bird poop in the first place, is probably going to pause for a moment and consider whether it’s worth eating.  Most things will leave the caterpillar alone rather than eating it.  And when the predator wanders off and leaves the caterpillar to itself, it can pull the osmeterium back into the pouch behind its head until the next time it’s needed.

Pretty fun, eh?  If a caterpillar that looks like bird poop isn’t fun, I don’t know what is!  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com