In the Northeast, Brown-hooded Owlet moths (Cucullia convexipennis) produce two generations a summer. The larvae of the first generation mature in July, and the second generation matures from late August into October. Brown-hooded Owlet larvae are often found on aster and goldenrod plants, resting on stems (often head down) in plain sight during the day. First generation larvae feed on the leaves and the second generation consumes the flowers of these plants. (Photo: note molted skin above caterpillar.)
American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillars are present from June to October in the Northeast, but because of their size (up to 2 ½”) and their searching for a suitable site to pupate in over the winter, they are very evident right now.
American Dagger Moth caterpillars have lemon yellow (early instars) or white (late instars) setae, or hairs. Their distinctive characteristic is the pattern of black tufts: two pairs of diverging tufts along the middle of the caterpillar and one thick black tuft at the end. As larvae they have a wide variety of host trees, including alders, ashes, birches, elms, hickories, maples, oaks, poplars, walnuts, and willows.
After locating a wintering site, these caterpillars will spin a cocoon in which they will spend the next several months as pupae. Late next spring American Dagger Moths will emerge from their cocoons as two-inch-long brown moths.
If touched, these caterpillars can cause a mild allergic reaction (a rash) in some people who touch the them.
Congratulations to Rinky Black, who was the first person to accurately identify the Mystery Photo as a Monkey Slug!
Some of our dullest-looking moths started their lives out as colorful, bizarrely-shaped caterpillars. In particular, there is a family of caterpillars (Limacodidae) known as “slug caterpillars” which come in all kinds of unusual forms and colors. They can be naked or densely hairy, and they usually have stinging hairs. The Hag Moth (Phobetron pithecium), found throughout eastern North America, is one such moth. Whereas the adult moth is a dull brown, the caterpillar stage is anything but dull. Known as the Monkey Slug, the caterpillar stage of this moth has three pairs of long “arms” and three additional pairs about half as long. Its appearance has been likened to a tarantula (many of our insectivorous birds winter in the tropics, where there are tarantulas (which the birds avoid), and therein lies the reason for the caterpillar to look like one). Although most photographs make Monkey Slugs look large, they measure only about an inch in diameter. Adult moths bear a slight resemblance to bees and wasps.
What is eye-catching about Monkey Slugs (as well as other slug caterpillars), besides their bizarre appearance, is the way in which they move. Monkey Slugs glide – instead of the typical prolegs (located behind six true legs) they have suckers (see bottom right inset). This gliding is responsible for its being classified as a “slug” caterpillar, for it moves much like a slug does. The Monkey Slug is one of the slug caterpillars that does not sting, so you can handle it safely should you find one. (Thanks to Kathy and Geoff Marchant for photo op.)
The larval stage of a butterfly or moth is spent doing little but eating. Only as a caterpillar will these insects have chewing mouthparts, and they waste no time in using them. As they eat, caterpillars increase in size and their skin (exoskeleton) becomes tighter and tighter, as it doesn’t grow larger. The caterpillar grows a new, larger exoskeleton underneath the outer skin and then sheds, or molts, the old one. Most caterpillars molt five times. At first, the new exoskeleton is very soft and not very protective, but it soon hardens. The shed exoskeleton is often eaten before the caterpillar ingests more plant food.
There are names for the caterpillar’s stage of development in between each molt, called “instars.” When the caterpillar hatches from its egg, it is referred to as a “first instar” caterpillar. After its first molt, the caterpillar is referred to as a “second instar,” and so on up until the exoskeleton is shed for the final time, revealing the chrysalis (if it’s a butterfly).
The Monarch in the photograph is a very new 4th instar instar caterpillar (see antennae which haven’t hardened). It has shed three times. Its third exoskeleton (which it has just shed) is on the milkweed leaf behind the caterpillar. To see a real-time video of a Monarch molting go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbHyq3RwtxI.
(Thanks to Otis Brown for his keen eye in finding this Monarch caterpillar before it ate its just-molted skin. Also to Ba Rea ((www.basrelief.org) for her instar confirmation.)
Caterpillars, the larval stage of moths and butterflies, are very susceptible to predators (escaping quickly is not an option). Much of their energy in this stage is devoted to defense mechanisms to thwart would-be predators. A partial list of these defenses includes irritating bristles with detachable tips (Tussock Moths), toxic “breath” (Tobacco Hornworms, consumers of tomato plants, tobacco and other plants in the nightshade family, release toxic, bad-smelling nicotine), toxic bodies (Monarchs) and anti-coagulant venom (Giant Silkworm Moths).
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) larvae defense mechanism strategies change as they develop. In early stages, or instars, they mimic bird droppings (not an appealing meal for most predators) and older larvae possess bright yellow-orange, horn-like organs behind the head known as osmeteria (see photo inset). When threatened, larvae rear up, extrude the osmeterium, and attempt to smear potential predators with a chemical repellent.
Black Swallowtail larvae are frequently sought after by parasitoids, which can locate their hosts by chemicals in the hosts’ feces (frass). To decrease their chances of being parasitized, Black Swallowtail larvae toss their fecal pellets away from themselves with their mandibles.
To learn much more about both moth and butterfly larvae, go to http://www.thecaterpillarlab.org.
The Isabella Tiger Moth typically has two broods during the summer. The caterpillars (Woolly Bears) in the first brood pupate and emerge as adult moths mid-summer. The second brood overwinters as caterpillars and pupate in the spring. The Woolly Bears we see crossing roads at this time of year are second-brood caterpillars in search of protective hibernation sites (hibernacula).
Old-timers predicted the severity of the coming winter by the relative lengths of the black and brown bands of the caterpillars when they became easy to observe in the fall – the longer the black sections and narrower the brown section, the harder a winter they were in for. In fact, this may have had some validity, as brown hairs (setae) are added to the middle band every time the caterpillar molts. Therefore, the older the caterpillar, the wider the brown band. If winter comes early, the caterpillar’s brown band would be relatively narrow due to the fact it didn’t have time to mature fully and develop a wider brown section before hibernating.
The adult stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth is often overlooked, due to the appeal of the larval stage. This tan moth, with a wingspan of 1 ½ – 2 inches, has tiny black markings on its wings. Male and female are sexually dimorphic and can be distinguished by the color of their hind wings. Males have yellow-pale orange hind wings while the hind wings of females are rosy. (Photo: Woolly Bear; photo inset: female Isabella Tiger Moth)
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The striped caterpillar that is crawling along the surface of fresh snow is the larval stage of a noctuid or owlet moth known as the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba). Noctuids are dull-colored, medium-sized, nocturnal moths that are attracted to lights in the summer. They usually possess a well-developed proboscis (mouthpart) for sucking nectar. The Large Yellow Underwing larva is one of many species known as cutworms that feed on herbaceous plants. Introduced from Europe to Nova Scotia in 1979, this species has since spread north to the Arctic Ocean, west to the Pacific, and south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Larvae sporadically feed through the winter months whenever temperatures are above the mid-40s. The Large Yellow Underwing larva has been nicknamed the winter cutworm and the snow cut-worm for its ability to feed actively when other cutworms are dormant for the winter. Occasionally on warmer winter days, such as we had last week, you see them crawling on the snow.