“Cultural mimicry”: a caterpillar that decorates itself with flowers

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:

(photo from Bug Guide)

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:

From Bug Guide (link above)

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):

And one on Achillea millefolium, from Friends’ Central School of Lepidoptera Research (I’ve added the circle to highlight the larva):


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).

31 Comments

  1. Hempenstein
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    And, on the part of the caterpillars, without resort to sophisticated theology or philosophy, either!

  2. twattybanjo
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Amazing, absolutely amazing.

  3. Dominic
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Presumably then you would say what a hermit crab or a caddisfly larvae does is also “cultural mimicry”?

    • Dominic
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      So could the bower of a bower bird be cultutal mimicry? No that would be more like sexual selection – a “plumage mimicry” by a dull bird that wishes to attract a mate – ?

  4. Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    THIS IS AWESOME (apologies for the absurd use of all caps). Makes me wonder how many times I’ve overlooked those larvae.

  5. Seyram
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Such an amazing thing, so amazing. I hope you all know this is the magnificent hand of god at work, right? Only god in his infinite wisdom could create such an amazingly perfect creature. I am joking of course :-)

  6. the moother
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    you know, i don’t recall there ever being such cool stories in any of the world’s religions…, evar!

  7. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Great pictures, def worth five thousand of my words!!

  8. Grania Spingies
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Wow, I wasn’t aware of this type of mimicry.
    Really amazing stuff.

  9. Griff
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it at risk of being pollinated?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      LOL, yes. As was Lady Chatterley with her adornments.

  10. Posted April 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Super cool biology post.
    I’m sending this one on to my Entomology professor!

  11. Avis
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    This is definitely going into my lecture on Monday (just to let Jerry know how much I appreciate his science posts!).

  12. Liz Naples
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is also one of my favourite books too.

    • Liz Naples
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      This was the second part of my post, the first part of which went missing.

      I love most the biology and zoology posts which teach me something new and utterly interesting each day.

  13. Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    This behavior is more a disguise for protection than mimicry

  14. Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Tool-using insects?

    • cesiumfrog
      Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Exactly.

      “Cultural” is a terrible suggestion for terminology here! Magpie song is a cultural phenomena, in that it appears that the popular songs in any particular region may either be spread to birds in neighbouring regions or fade out of fashion. Culture is also the thing typically associated with the the “great leap forward” in hominid evolution.

      Tool use in this caterpillar would only be cultural if the actions of the caterpillar were primarily mimicing the actions of nearby caterpillars of the same species, not simply mimicing the local environment in general.

      If “tool use” isn’t good enough and you need a more Dawkinsy terminology than for crying out loud call it the “extended pheontype”. Sheesh.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        Oh for crying out loud, say something substantive. It was just a lighthearted title.

        Sheesh back at you.

        • Dominic
          Posted April 6, 2012 at 3:06 am | Permalink

          Having thought about this, I wondered if it might be linked to cocoon spinning? It is as if at some stage the caterpillar had begun the cocoon but not properly? Or maybe it is linked to the way some caterpillars can suspend themselves from leaves with silk. In fact, does the silk spinning happen in a similar way to that is spiders? Did silk spinning evolve in the common ancestor of spiders and butterflies? So many questions!

          Ah – found an article for those interested-
          “The ability to produce silk proteins has evolved multiple times in the arthropods, and silk secreting glands have evolved via two different pathways. The comparative data and phylogenetic analyses in this review suggest that the silk-secreting systems of spiders and insects are homologous and linked to the crural gland (origin of systemic pathway to silk production) and cuticular secretions (origin of surficial pathway to silk production) of an onychophoran-like ancestor.”

          http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.ento.42.1.231

        • Posted April 6, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

          S/he’s right tho – it would be cultural if it was a learned behaviour. I like the ‘Chatterly phenomenon’ better anyway.

          • Posted April 6, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

            ‘Chatterly’ could have other uses – they conversed chatterly; Lady Chatterly said Mellors had latterly dressed parts of her anatomy with flowers quite nattily.
            Sorry!

  15. Adam M.
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Wow, that is some amazingly effective camouflage! Nice post.

  16. Marella
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Well I’ll be damned, fancy that!

  17. still learning
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Botanical mimicry? Environmental mimicry? No matter – it’s beautiful and clever.

    Had to lol at the timing of this post: Reince Priebus just compared the Republican War on Women to a war on caterpillars! Priebus is the head of the Republican Nat’l Committee (explanation for European readers). If you take the vowels out of his name, you get RNC PR BS. So true.

  18. Kiwi Dave
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Amazing photos, or perhaps I mean amazing caterpillars.

  19. Achrachno
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    “but it’s probably easier to evolve “bedecking” behavior than the complex system of chromatophores and environmental assessment required in the octopuses.”

    I wonder if that’s true. Are there any other caterpillars that do this? The sort of body-to-background matching shown by the octopus, is also carried off my Anolis, some fish, tree frogs, and perhaps some other animals. Crab spiders maybe? It could be learning to bedeck is evolutionarily more difficult than we’d think at first.

    Do bagworms and tent caterpillars count as bedecking? Bagworms seem pretty close – and in some respects more elaborate.

    • hematophage
      Posted April 6, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Convergently, chrysopid larvae do this. They have spikes on their back, and they collect little pieces of fluff to put up there so they can blend into a herd of woolly aphids, fooling their ant minders and chowing down.

      (Hi Jerry, it’s Cassidy from Vandy — commenting on science posts as encouraged!)

  20. Posted June 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Here’s another camouflaged critter to add to your list — our best guess is possibly Lacewing Larva based on web research, but it’s so small to identify definitively . Anyone else have ideas?

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