Alert reader Michael called my attention to a post on fauna that highlighted a moth with a cryptic caterpillar. The moth is the wavy emerald moth (Synchlora aerata), and the adult looks like this:
The interesting thing about this beast is that the caterpillar practices what I call “cultural mimicry”: it bedecks itself with plant material from its surroundings to hide itself from predators. Now undoubtedly this behavior is genetically hard-wired in the caterpillar; I call it “cultural mimicry” simply because the caterpillar takes things from its environment to hide itself. This is equivalent to what an octopus does: changing its color to match its temporary surroundings; but it’s probably easier to evolve “bedecking” behavior than the complex system of chromatophores and environmental assessment required in the octopuses. The genes coding for this behavior can simply be those coding for the behavior: “occasionally cover yourself with plant material plucked from around you”.
As fauna notes:
The Caterpillar of the Wavy Emerald Moth (Synchlora aerata), family Geometridae, a species found throughout much of North America. The larvae feed on many plants in the family Asteraceae (like Liatris spp. and Rudbeckia spp.) as well as a variety of other flowering plants. They are known to pluck the petals from the flowers of their host plants and affix them to their backs using silk. Once the petals begin to wilt and discolor, the caterpillar discards the old petals and picks new petals, which camouflage the animal.
Here’s one on a Liatrus:
The caterpillar on a prairie coneflower, having taken part of the central disc to cover itself (this photo and following one by Jim McCormac from Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, used with permission):
and on wingstem, (Verbesina alternifolia):
If you don’t like my neologism of “cultural mimicry,” how about “The Chatterley Phenomenon”? As literate readers will recall, in one of the salacious part of Lady Chatterley’s Lover Mellors the gamekeeper bedecks Lady Chatterley’s nether locks with campions and forget-me-nots (link here).