Caterpillar Countdown

Beauty can come in strange forms.

~James Dyson

I thought about not saying anything else in this post other than the quote above, because it really does sum up what we found one night this week. Yes, it is that time of year again when we caterpillar-lovers are out and about searching for something cool, something bizarre, something strange and beautiful. Melissa and I both have caterpillar programs today and then next weekend is the annual BugFest celebration at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, where, once again, we will host a caterpillar booth. So, bear with me as I will no doubt share a few lovely larva images over the next couple of weeks.

We often find our best specimens at night, either by regular flashlight or UV flashlight (many species glow in UV light). And so it was Thursday night…some fine specimens indeed…

Black-blotched Schizura

Black-blotched Schizura (click photos to enlarge)

The Schizura group are some of the leaf edge caterpillars – they chew out a section of leaf and then position their body within that section. The strange protuberances of the caterpillar’s body help disguise it by blending in with the jagged edges of the leaf blade.

Crowned slug

Crowned Slug

One of my favorites, the Crowned Slug, looks like an alien creature. They, like many of the slug caterpillars, are difficult to find because they tend to feed on the undersides of tree leaves (plus, they blend in). These are best located with a UV flashlight.

The highlight of the evening was a species that I have wanted to find for several years. Being a true caterpillar nerd, I have poured over my copy of Wagner’s field guide countless times since it first came out, and been amazed at some of the bizarre larvae that can be found in our area. There are several that were on my “larval bucket list” and it is always a thrill to find one. For this species, I have seen the tiny moth a few times at home and at work, so I knew they were around.

Spun glass slug moth 1, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri

The strange-looking Spun Glass Slug Moth

And this week, I finally found the exquisite larva (with the aid of a UV flashlight).

Spun Glass Slug

Spun Glass Slug

This is the last instar of this translucent little beauty. It was found underneath an oak leaf (various oaks and American beech are the host plants). It is one of the so-called stinging caterpillars (tufts of spines that can inject venom if touched). Apparently, when it gets ready to pupate, the numerous “arms” fall off.

Spun glass slug close up

A closer look

Of course, now I want to find some of the earlier instars. I guess it is good to have goals in your life…

Last Larva?

…one’s first impression might be that this creature has somehow lost its way out of an Amazonian jungle.

~David L. Wagner, describing the Crowned Slug caterpillar in Caterpillars of Eastern North America

When I returned from our California trip, I looked around the yard and saw what lies ahead – lots of yard work. Seems as though autumn had arrived while we were away – leaves changing colors and dropping, branches and twigs littering the ground, and an accumulation of acorns on the back deck. This is apparently a good year for the mast crop (acorns and hickory nuts). So, I began by sweeping off the walkway and deck.

bucket of acorns

Cleaning up the acorns on the deck (click photos to enlarge)

The two large oaks out back drop an impressive number of acorns every few years (usually with a resounding clang on the metal roof and deck). I swept up almost a 5-gallon bucket of nuts that had fallen in a week and a half.

Crowned Slug 1

Crowned Slug caterpillar

As I finished sweeping up, I noticed a splash of color on one of the fallen oak leaves – a caterpillar. And not just any caterpillar, one of my favorites, the Crowned Slug (Isa textula). This is one of the more bizarre-looking of the “stinging” caterpillars.

Crowned Slug close up

Close up of stinging spines

This unusual species is characterized by a series of lobes projecting from the sides of the body, each lobe containing an array of long, stinging spines. Additional stinging spines are found in clusters near the middle of the dorsal surface. The head region is marked by two elongate projections edged in red.

Crowned Slug from below

Crowned Slug feeding on dried oak leaf

I was initially surprised to find one so late in the season, and to see it feeding on an obviously dry fallen leaf. But when I looked it up in Caterpillars of Eastern North America, the author said these caterpillars may be active very late in the season, sometimes dropping down with autumn rains and wind. So, I guess it is not so unusual after all.

Crowned Slug

A beautiful way to finish another great caterpillar season

After spending a few minutes photographing it, I placed this late larva on a fresh oak leaf out back. If this is the last larva of the season, it is a memorable one…slug royalty. I’m already looking forward to next year…