Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.
It has been so busy lately that I tend to forget to “stop and smell the roses”, to take advantage of where I work and live, and to make the time to just look around, ponder, and be amazed. Luckily, I remembered to do just that a couple of weeks ago when I saw some rolled leaves on one of our water garden plants, Powdery Alligator Flag, Thalia dealbata. I am not that familiar with this species, but it seems as though something has taken a liking to the large, canna-like leaves this spring. Horticulture staff commented that this type of defoliation on this species was not common. We were all curious as to who the leaf-rollers might be.
I peeked into some of the rolled leaves and could see a green caterpillar in some of them. Leaf-rolling is a great way to provide some shelter for yourself and is seen in many types of caterpillars. I googled leaf-rolling on Thalia and quickly discovered that this was probably the work of the larva of a Brazilian skipper, Calpodes ethlius. Larvae are commonly found on leaves of canna, although Thalia is also mentioned as a host.
To create their feeding shelter, the newly hatched larva chews two parallel lines of leaf tissue from the leaf margin toward the center of the leaf. It attaches silk strands to both the outer and inner edges. As the silk dries, it contracts, pulling the leaf into an open-ended tube in which the larva hides.
That first day, I had teased open a shelter and seen the small caterpillars but did not have my camera. On my next visit, several days later, I found some huge larvae and a prepupa. I must confess I didn’t notice it was already in the prepupa stage until I looked at the images. Close inspection of the photo above reveals the silk strand that forms a girdle attaching the larva to the leaf ,about 1/3 the way down the body from the head. You also can see the large amount of silk along the leaf midrib and how it appears the posterior end of the larva may be attached by silk strands.
Inspecting another rolled leaf, I found the strange-looking chrysalis of this species. I had seen a photo online and had hoped to be able to see one for myself, and here is was!
There is a small anterior horn (could this be the antenna inside?) and a long tube coming from the underside that extends beyond the posterior part of the chrysalis. We wondered what that was and I finally found a reference that said it contains the long proboscis of the skipper. I cut this leaf and brought it into my office where I set it up in a vial of water in the window, hoping to witness the emergence of the adult.
Five days passed, and the pupa took on a new look. You could see more of the developing skipper inside.
The huge eye of the adult was particularly noticeable. In many species, when you can see more of the adult inside the pupa, that is a signal that it will soon emerge. As luck would have it, I had off-site first aid training the next morning, and when I returned…
I found an empty chrysalis, and, at first, no skipper. Searching the office, I finally saw some movement under some of the debris-pile on my table next to the window. I grabbed a twig and gently picked up the fresh skipper. What a beauty (and that eye is huge)!
According to the official record-keepers of The Butterflies of North Carolina, the Brazilian skipper is a somewhat rare species in our state, especially in the Piedmont. Details of the flight period and life history in our state are not well known. It is a migrant from further south (it is more common in Florida), but it does breed in North Carolina. I’ll drop a note to the compilers of the list and let them know we have this rare beauty this summer at NCBG. I’m really glad I peeked inside that leaf roll.