Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Mystery of the Fuzzy Orange and Black Stripped Caterpillar

   About two weeks ago I was walking along when I noticed, inching it's way across the sidewalk, an adorable fuzzy caterpillar. All caterpillars are cute, but there is something especially endearing about a caterpillar covered with fur. They are like elongated miniature mammals. I knelt down and snapped a couple of photo's of him with my phone. I shared one of them on my instagram feed so all my instagram friends could also marvel in this small creatures cuteness. I mused to myself (and my instagram friends) 'I wonder what this little guy will turn into.' Here are the photos.

  Then more recently, I was walking past a bush when I noticed a weird, sci-fi looking webbed pod that immediately summoned forth images of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.' When I more closely inspected the strange pod, the sci-fi nature of it became more apparent. It seemed that there were caterpillar bodies stuck in the pod. My theory at the time was that perhaps some moth species lay egg sacks, like spiders. When the caterpillars were born and tried to hatch, something happened and they died while trying to emerge from their egg sack. (or, maybe an intelligent species of moths-aliens flew their spaceships from their home planet, Motherallia to Earth where laid their egg-sack full of their alien young. But when the egg-sack hatched, the young caterpillars could not handle our atmosphere and perished. Thus the alien moths plot to take over Earth was foiled! That's the movie version of this mysterious pod.)

   I continued on my walk when I came upon another bush and noticed another adorable fuzzy caterpillar! And then I noticed another, and another and another! This bush practically covered with fuzzy orange and black caterpillars.

   I became quickly fascinated by this bush and the prevalence of caterpillars on it. So I walked around it, snapping pictures of all the caterpillars. This is when I saw it, another webbed looking pod, this time covered with live caterpillars. I thought at the time that maybe these caterpillars had just hatched from their weird egg sack.

   This was not the only webbed pod on this bush either, there were more!

   Then I remembered a picture I had snapped several months ago. I had been walking past a different bush in a different town when I saw a weird webby structure with tiny bugs milling about inside it. Basically it was exactly what I had been observing in the current bush except with tinier caterpillars.  Here it is:

    One reaction I had to all these caterpillars is that while one fuzzy caterpillar is quite adorable, a whole bunch of them together causes them to lose their charm and they begin to look a bit creepy and almost gross. The word infestation rings in the mind. Too much of even the cutest animal can be a bad thing. Anyone who read 'Millions of Cats' when they were a kid knows this! Caterpillars here, caterpillars there, caterpillars everywhere. Hundreds of caterpillars, thousands of caterpillars, millions and trillions and billions of caterpillars!
    My momentary feelings of 'eww' about these caterpillars was short lived though. Mostly I think they are really interesting. In fact, these caterpillars quite intrigued me and when I got home I set out to investigate! It was a virtual investigation only involving search terms and google. I typed in various combinations of words that I thought accurately depicted these caterpillars, but had no luck until I typed in 'Seattle caterpillars' and instantly discovered what these little guys are: Tent Caterpillars! A lot of my assumptions about these caterpillars were all wrong. The webbed pod things I saw were not egg sacks, but nests that the caterpillars create as protection from various predators. Also, tent caterpillars molt four times during their life cycle. So when I saw nests with what looked like lots of dead caterpillars in them, they were probably just molted exoskeletons of caterpillars that are still thriving somewhere with a new exoskeleton.
    The tent caterpillar hatches from an egg in April or May. They emerge from their eggs and immediately strive the satiate their hunger ( like 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar') by munching on leaves. In whatever leafy haven they can find, the begin to make their tents out of their own homemade silky material. They can retreat to their silky structures at night where they are safe from snacking birds or cold. After six weeks of a life of eating, tent making and occasional molting, the tent caterpillar finds a place to make a cocoon. Here is a photo I took at the Tent Caterpillar Bush. I think this caterpillar is making a cocoon rather than a tent. The material seems slightly different, fuzzy rather then stretchy. But I don't know for sure. What do you think?

    After two weeks in it's cocoon, the tent caterpillar is no more and instead is now a moth. Being a moth comes with great responsibility. They must go forth and insure the continued prosperity of their kind by immediately mating and laying eggs. After being a caterpillar confined to a small bush and crowded nest, it must be nice to be a moth. They get to fly around and see the world from a whole new perspective. But the saddest thing about being a tent caterpillar is that you only get to be a moth for two days before dying. 
    The last picture I am going to share is of the bush where all the caterpillars live. It looks like an ordinary bush from far away, but on closer inspection it is quite interesting!

(Here are two websites where I got my info on Tent Caterpillars. Mostly from this one on the Seattle Governments page, but also a little bit from the wikipedia page which talked more about the Eastern Tent Caterpillar.)


Optimistic Existentialist said...

And just when the caterpillar thought its life was became a butterfly"

autumnelixe said...

That was interesting.

Amber @ Fauna Finds Flora said...

Keith- It is a great ending!
Autumn- Thanks, I thought so too. It was fun trying to figure out what these fuzzy guys were.