Bizarre caterpillars

Caterpillars are slow and often tasty, making them prime targets for predation, particularly by birds.  In response, they’ve evolved a number of defenses, including bodily toxins and bright warning coloration to alert predators of those toxins, nasty spines, cryptic coloration to hide themselves, or even mimicry of other animals, like snakes, to frighten predators. Several of these defenses can be seen in the images below.

Environmental graffiti has collected 15 pictures of weird, scary, or downright bizarre caterpillars, and it’s worth looking at all of them.  I’ll present only five (click to enlarge); as far as I can see, every single one of these was misidentified on the site.  Readers who know these things—help!

This was misidentified at the site as the Pale Tussock moth (Calliteara pudibunda). I have no idea what it is.

Also misidentified at the site as a stinging rose caterpillars (Parasa indetermina),

This one mimics a snake:

You can find more photos of bizarre caterpillars (and other weird insects) at Slackstack.  Here are two (sources and identity unspecified):


36 Comments

  1. SmoledMan
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Obviously God wanted them this way.

  2. daveau
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Geez oh Pete. I will not be able to sleep tonight.

    • Achrachno
      Posted June 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      I really can’t understand that reaction, daveau. These are spectacular creatures, on a small scale, and I’m glad we have them. But, I’ve probably never quite grown out be being the person I was at ten.

      • Dominic
        Posted July 2, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

        Me too!

  3. Posted June 30, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Time for the Max Ernst Entomology Academy.

  4. Posted June 30, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Those are wonderful!

  5. Posted June 30, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Ah, yes. The Wtfensis getitoffamebunda. Lovely creature, with the crawling and the creeping and the shuddering and weeping.

    And how could we ever forget the perennial favorite, the Neversleepagaineara itsinmybrainiatus. The merest sight of which is known to burn an image directly into the cornea of its victims.

  6. Posted June 30, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I think that the description goes with the image on the next page, which should make them line up a bit better.

  7. Lynn
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    As always, amazing nature pics.

  8. Posted June 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    You know, it’s fascinating.

    Aliens in science fiction are virtually universally portrayed as humanoid. Even the eponymous villain of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece has two arms, two legs, a head, a mouth, hands, feet, and joints that all work the same way as a human’s. (Yes, I know — there’s some sort of back-story that explains that. Not my point.)

    I’m sure it has something to do with budgets, but only tangentially. The same pattern holds true for animated aliens.

    In reality, any alien life out there will be at least as weird as a lobster, or a nautilus, or a jellyfish…or a caterpillar. And probably even more gut-wrenchingly disturbing, no matter what goes on in whatever the alien uses to think with.

    I can haz brain bleach nao plz?

    b&

    • Posted June 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      “I’m sure it has something to do with budgets” — Well, that was certainly true in the original Star Trek!

      Of course, that’s not a constraint in written sf, even less than in animation, and there is greater variety there (see White’s Sector General stories for a huge number from a single author), but humanoid races are still uncommonly common.

      One of the most significant reasons might be that it’s easier for readers to empathise with them (if that’s what the author wants…).

      Aldiss had a story about intelligent alien “slugs” that spoke by modulated farting… but empathy was certainly not what he was striving for…

      /@

      • Posted June 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        Non-humanoids are still a budget issue. Photorealistic CG is nowhere near as pricey as it once was, but it will eat into a film/show’s budget in a hurry. It’s one thing if it’s not living organisms, but representing actual life digitally can get very expensive, indeed.

    • Achrachno
      Posted June 30, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      Jabba the Hut

      Yeah, I know — you said virtually universally.

      • Posted June 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        Jabba the Hutt is most emphatically humanoid. His face is entirely human, even down to the eyelids and pupils and tongue and the rest, plus he’s got human arms and hands. And he’s attracted to human women.

        Sure, his legs are fused into a mermaid-like tail, but that’s hardly novel.

        Larry Niven did a good job with the Puppeteers, but that’s the best example I can think of.

        b&

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted July 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Hi Ben:

      Well, there are the Hooloovoo, “a hyperintelligent shade of the colour blue.” 😉

      I think about this way more than I should. Of course, the fact that most science fictional aliens are basically humanoid is undoubtedly due to the fact that most science fiction writers are basically humanoid. However…

      …While it is not reasonable to expect that intelligent aliens would look like humans, think like humans, or speak English, would it not be reasonable, based on the principle of convergent evolution, to think that intelligent aliens would be, in external form if not in biochemistry, similar or at least analogous to terrestrial form existing in the same milieu? For example, if the aliens are from an oceanic planet, isn’t it probable that they would have evolved fins, for the same reason that both fish and dolphins did? Also, given the enormous survival value conferred by being able to sense (food, danger) at a distance, and to go toward the one and away from the other, doesn’t it seem reasonable that analogues to eyes, ears, and mobility would also have evolved? Hence, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine intelligent aliens as externally similar to some or another terrestrial-type animal, be it human, lobster, penguin, spider, fish or tiger.

      Of course, all bets are off if the aliens come from an environmental niche that has no terrestrial analogue. There aren’t a lot of examples that I do know, but a couple that come to mind are the giant gasbag-type beings floating in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere in Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa” and the cask-shaped beings with a metabolism based on the oxidation of silicon to silicon dioxide in Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey.”

    • Dominic
      Posted July 2, 2012 at 5:11 am | Permalink

      Aliens that evolve intelligence MUST have hand-like appendages if they are to create a material culture. Despite this many science fiction films portray aliens with space technology & no obvious means of making it.

  9. still learning
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    #4 – LOL! I thought, for a second, you stuck a cat pic in the mix to see if we were paying attention.

    These are wonderful critters. They’d be great as large stuffed animals for kids.

  10. Mary - Canada
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Spectacular!

  11. Occam
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Stupendous! Thank you, Jerry!

    My first reaction was to grab my macro lens and go out looking for caterpillars. But in my part of the world, it’s a quarter to midnight already, and we’re in the midst of a hailstorm…

    My second reaction was a hearty LOL, as readers familiar with the work of the great German cartoonist Loriot will understand. The beauty in picture 2 looks freakishly similar to Loriot’s stone louse ( Petrophaga lorioti), of which a likeness here.

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Wow, especially the last one! And I thought the Polyphemus caterpillar I found a few yrs ago was cool.

  13. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for some great biology!!

    The pictures and descriptions are very enlightening.

  14. Posted June 30, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Hurray for caterpillars! They are spectacular creatures which don’t get nearly enough attention or respect.

    I am studying the caterpillars of the genus Acronicta, which have a fabulous amount of diversity – mimicry, aposematism, cryptic coloration, spines and paddles and hairs, you name it.

    If anyone wants to see more fun caterpillars, I write about them on my blog:
    http://caterpillarblog.com/

    You should also check out Sam Jaffe’s photography:
    http://www.spjaffe.com/

    As for the IDs… I might take a look at a reasonable hour. Only up right now because I just finished a black-lighting outing, looking for moths 🙂

  15. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted July 1, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I think the snake-mimic one is totally cool because of how specific the mimicry is: it looks just like one of these. Lots of work has been done on snake phylogeny including temporal calibration using fossils etc, so we can use systems like this to measure how fast such mimicry can evolve.

  16. Posted July 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    These are lovely. And delicious, as you point out. Great pics. Wicked post. As our Lord the holiest of holies directed you to deliver. Praise the “human caterpillar”.

    (My colleague was telling me about horror movies she and her team had been talking about: one being “The Human Caterpillar”, another being “Prothiasis”. True story.)

    N.b. for non-movie fans, she was referring to The Human Centipede and Prometheus.

    http://www.humancentipede.co.uk/
    http://www.prometheus-movie.com/

    Both, indeed, being very Godly and pro-Creationist… in a sense 😉

  17. embertine
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    Number two is a good old puss moth Cerura vinula, isn’t it?

  18. Dominic
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    They are all beautiful – thanks for sharing them.

  19. David Edwards
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    The first larva illustrated looks like a larva of one of the Papilio species, but I’m having a hard time tracking it down. My first thought was Papilio nireus, but that doesn’t have blue wedge shaped eye spots.

    Number two looks suspiciously like the larva of the Puss Moth, Cerura vinula. You’ll find this on the UK Moths website here.

    Number 6, the larva with the “Christmas tree” decorations, looks like it’s possibly one of the Euthalia species. Here’s an image of Euthalia acontea for comparison:

    Euthalia acontea

    Number 7 looks to me as if it ought to be a Saturniid larva of some sort, but at the moment, I’m having trouble searching the databases.

  20. David Edwards
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Double post.

    If anyone succeeds on confirming the identity of all the illustrated species, could they please pass on the info?

  21. Sawdust Sam
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Number 1 is definitely the Mekon.
    (Sorry, that information may only mean something to UK gentlemen of a certain age.)

  22. Laura Norder
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Number 4 looks like a blond puss caterpillar or asp (Megalopyge opercularis). One such wiggled out of a post oak in our garden. I’m glad I didn’t touch it – they apparently sting like hell!

    • David Edwards
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that! I tracked this one down, and apparently, it’s a member of the Family Zygaenidae, which here in the UK contains the Burnet Moths. Our native species are defended not by stings, but by toxin sequestering – they feed upon plants that contain various cyanides in their leaves, pass the cyanides undigested through the gut into their fatty tissues, and advertise this fact through aposematic colouration. The cyanides persist through pupation into the adult stage, hence both larvae and adults possess conspicuous markings.

      Meanwhile, another close encounter with the larva of Megalopyge opercularis can be found on BugGuide here.

    • David Edwards
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      UPDATE:

      There’s a scientific paper on envenomation by these caterpillars, which you can download for free and read here.

      Citation:

      Envenomation By The Asp Caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis) by David M. Eagleman, Clinical Toxicology, iFirst: 1-5 (10th March 2008) DOI: 10.1080/15563650701227729

  23. kate
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    what is the skull faced caterpillar????? I’ve found many amazing photos of it, but i can’t find what kind of insect it becomes!!!

    • David Edwards
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Kate, if you’re referring to picture 2, then that looks suspiciously like the UK species Cerura vinula, known colloquially as the Puss Moth. You can find out more about this species here. On that page, click on the various thumbnails below the main photo, and you’ll see adult, larva and ova featured. Picture 2 appears to be a final instar larva of this species.

      Of course, there may be other, similar species outside the UK and Europe in the same taxonomic Genus. if you’re American, go to BugGuide, and search for the Genus “Cerura”, and see what pops up. 🙂

    • David Edwards
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      UPDATE:

      Kate, I went to BugGuide, and searched for members of the Genus Cerura amongst the American fauna, and found just the one, namely Cerura scitiscripta, the Black Etched Prominent. That link features images of both adutls and larvae for you to peruse at leisure. 🙂


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