Sunday, September 2, 2018

Caterpillar Tales 2

A couple of years ago I wrote about finding caterpillars this time of year. I decided to make another dedicated effort this year and found some amazing things. When I read the post from 2016, I found it interesting that I didn’t find any one of those caterpillars – this year’s finds were completely new!

The caterpillars above are all stinging caterpillars. On the left is the white flannel moth, found on redbud (Cercis canadensis). In the center is the puss caterpillar (Southern flannel moth), found on boxelder (Acer negundo). On the right is Nason's slug moth, found on persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

The caterpillars above: white furcula on the left on black cherry (Prunus serotina), red-washed prominent on redbud (Cercis canadensis) in the center, and the rose hooktip on viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium). The prominent and the hooktip are wonderful 'deadleaf edge' mimics, often nestled close to the edge they are eating to fool predators.

The caterpillars above: on the left is the red-humped caterpillar on sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), tuliptree moth in the center on tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and on the right is the question mark butterfly caterpillar on winged elm (Ulmus alata) - the last one being one that I've wanted to find for a long time and it was on a seedling elm that I have in a pot.

Finding caterpillars is a fun and challenging summer activity. Anybody can find plenty of those black and orange-striped oakworms (they seem to be everywhere for a 2 week period, don’t they?) as well those fall webworms mucking up the trees with their protective webs. You might wonder how does one go about finding these other caterpillars? Here are the tips that I’ve picked up from my own experience and what I’ve heard from others.

Look for damage – caterpillars chew leaves, so look for signs of them being eaten. They might be eaten from the edge inward, or straight across the tip or you might just see a bunch of petioles with no leaves.

Look for poop – on the ground, on other leaves, it could be big or small but that’s your clue that someone’s been there (and might still be).

Look underneath – most caterpillars feed from the underside of the leaf; it’s where they feel safe. If it’s a tree, stand under the tree and look up. If the plant is lower, carefully raise up branches or flip individual leaves to look for them. Watch out for stinging caterpillars! I am careful to not directly touch the leaf if I can help it.

Leaf damage
Caterpillar poop

One consideration is timing. Sometimes caterpillars move away from the eaten leaves to take a break or at night, so check the stems and branches while you’re looking. Some caterpillars eat at night so they might be curled up in a leaf or resting elsewhere. If they’re rolled up in a leaf, be considerate about exposing them to predators.

The best plants to check for caterpillars are native plants, of course, and woody plants in particular: oaks, sweetgum, persimmon, elm, maple, boxelder, cherry, hawthorn, sassafras, birch. I highly recommend the book I reviewed in this blog to help you identify them; always take note of the plant on which you found them (take a picture of the leaf if you don't know it). The Caterpillar Identification Facebook group is also very helpful.

One blog is not enough to show you all the ones I've found, but these were the most interesting and they are mostly moths (there are 11,000+ moths in North America compared to 800+ butterflies so you will mostly find moths). However, lest you think that caterpillars are taking over, let me assure you that I usually only find one or two of any species at once.

Two other blogs from this summer include pictures of interesting caterpillars I've found: this one on Virginia Creeper and this one about hiking the trails at Elachee in Gainesville. Now, go forth and search!

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