Heads or Tails?

There will always be scary predator eyes looking out at us from the bushes – it’s just that most of the time they are mounted on the rear end of a happily munching caterpillar.

~The Caterpillar Lab, Sam Jaffe, Director

On a walk at Yates Mill Park the other day, I came across one of my favorite caterpillars. My first glimpse was of a darkened blob on a leaf as I walked past a fence. The leaf was on a climbing vine of a Greenbriar, Smilax rotundifolia.

Turbulent Phosphila on leaf

Turbulent Phosphila larvae on Greenbriar leaf (click photos to enlarge)

When I stepped closer, I knew what the blob was…a group of tightly packed caterpillars! These striking larvae go by the unusual name of Turbulent Phosphila, Phosphila turbulenta. I discussed this species in an earlier post and am always delighted to find them. The name intrigues me…I understand the turbulent (characterized by conflict, disorder, or confusion) part…they are gregarious feeders in their early stages and can appear quite confusing when seen in a mass on the underside of a Smilax leaf (their only host plant). Sam Jaffe, an incredible photographer and educator on the subject of caterpillars, described them as looking like a mass appearing more like some strange outdoor QR code than biological life. Well said, Sam. It is the Phosphila part that has me baffled. If you break it down into its Greek roots, it means “phos” = Light, and “phila” = loving….light loving.

Turbulent Phosphila on stem 1

Turbulent Phosphila on Greenbriar stem

These guys usually hide on the underside of leaves as larvae or are clustered along a stem, hardly the behavior of a light-lover. Perhaps the adult moth is especially attracted to light? I don’t know. Perhaps the bright white spots on the rear of the caterpillar resemble bright points of light to someone? Not sure. Those spots are believed to function as fake eyes, and are more prominent and numerous than the eye spots on the anterior end of this species, making it tough to tell which end is which.

Turbulent Phosphila on stem

Turbulent Phosphila larvae, head downward, on Greenbriar stem

Whether the fake eye spots on the rear create a distraction for would-be predators away from the more vital head portion of the caterpillar, or they just serve as a startle and potential threat factor when seen in a grouping, the impact is one of confusion when you first look at these larvae. David Wagner, in his excellent reference, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, states that both the coloration and behavior suggest that these caterpillars are chemically protected. Whatever the case, they provide me with a wonderful visual treat every time I encounter them.

Caterpillar Conundrum

Turbulent Phosphila 2

Turbulent Phosphila (click photos to enlarge)

I have been away a few days celebrating a major birthday (hard to believe it is that number) and returned to find a few caterpillars from BugFest still active (most were released the day after the event). I was particularly pleased to see the snappily-attired Turbulent Phosphila munching away on its host plant, Greenbrier (Smilax sp.). I remember the first time I found one of these pin-striped beauties I could not decide which end was which, a common caterpillar conundrum. A frequent defense strategy of many types of insects is to present a false head to would-be predators. This usually involves eye spots of some sort since we, and most vertebrate predators like birds, associate eyes with the head of an animal. By going after the head first, a bird is likely to immobilize its prey quickly and cut off any escape attempt.

Turbulent Phosphila 1

Turbulent Phosphila – which end is which?

A close look reveals the truth – the last three segments of the rear of the caterpillar are somewhat enlarged and have prominent white spots suggesting eyes. Ironically, the true head end of the larva also has false eye spots on the thorax. The true eyes, like those of most caterpillars, are diminutive and arranged in arcs on the side of the caterpillar’s true head capsule, which is tucked on the right side of the larva in the image above (note the presence of the short antennae and true legs on that end). Maybe it is no accident that referee shirts look like the bold patterns of this larva – many of us question where their eyes are as well.

Turbulent Phosphila

Turbulent Phosphila on Smilax sp.

David Wagner (Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America) states that “the bold coloration is suggestive that the insect is chemically protected, although it remains to be shown if the Turbulent Phosphila is in fact unpalatable, or if its patterning is largely a ruse”.

Turbulent phosphila

Grouping of Turbulent Phosphila larvae

Young caterpillars are gregarious feeders on various species of Greenbrier, but as they grow older, they become more solitary. Finding a group of them on the underside of a Greenbrier leaf or clumped on a vine is a caterpillar-lover’s (and perhaps graphic artist’s) delight. The moth has two generations per year throughout much of our region and can often be found as late as November in the coastal plain. Finding the Curve-lined Owlet caterpillar, and now these interesting larvae, on Greenbrier, gives me a reason to appreciate this often maligned vine.