THIS WEEK at HILTON POND
8-14 June 2002

Installment #127---Visitor #visitor stats

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BLACK, BRISTLY CATERPILLAR

Humans and butterflies are adapted best for diurnal activity, so it's not surprising from spring through fall we often encounter butterflies on daytime excursions. Most folks can identify at least a few butterfly species and even install plants that attract these colorful insects to their yards. The majority of moths, on the other hand, are poorly known, primarily because they fly at night and are seldom seen--except for those that flutter around our porch lights or get into the woolens.

Caterpillar of Giant Leopard Moth, Ecpantheria scribonia

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Here at Hilton Pond Center we're nearly as likely to see moth caterpillars as the moths themselves, especially since these voracious larvae are moving and eating almost around the clock. Lately we've made a concerted effort seek out, watch, and identify lepidopteran larval stages--all in the name of gaining better understanding of our local moth population. This week, for example, we discovered a 2" inch caterpillar (above) stretched out under a couple of loose boards.

The larva resembled one of those familiar brown-and-black Woolly Bears that supposedly forecast the severity of winter weather, but it was completely covered with quarter-inch black bristles that shined in the sun like patent leather. As a rule, it's best not to handle hairy caterpillars because some of them are poisonous. When specialized hollow hairs on these caterpillars are touched by us "thin-skinned" humans, one or more may break off, create a tiny scratch on our hand, and release a strong toxin into the nearly invisible wound. This process--called "urtication"--is analogous to a bee sting, except that the poison is trasmitted by a scratch rather than an injection. Caterpillar urtications can cause severe allergic responses and even death in some people, so--as we said--better NOT to handle hairy caterpillars unless you know they are harmless varieties.

With this precaution in mine, we carefully scooped our new-found black caterpillar onto a piece of wood, Caterpillar of Giant Leopard Moth, Ecpantheria scriboniawhere it immediately curled up into a ball and revealed what we suspected would be a useful field mark: bright red bands between its body segments (left). After we made our way back to the library at Hilton Pond Center, we took down one of the few caterpillar field guides in print (Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars by Amy Bartlett Wright; Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993) and searched for an illustration that matched.

This particular field guide groups caterpillars according to their skin characteristics, e.g., smooth, smooth with knobs or bumps, hairy, bristled, with branched spines, etc., so we turned to the "bristled" section. The first entry was the Woolly Bear, and on the very next page we found a painting of a black, bristly caterpillar with red bands between its segments. Caterpillar of Giant Leopard Moth, Ecpantheria scriboniaThere wasn't much question about the identification: Giant Leopard Moth, Hypercompe scribonia (formerly Ecpantheria scribonia), a non-poisonous species that we now felt comfortable handling so we could see the red bands and bristles even better (right).

The large-ish Giant Leopard Moth has a 3" wingspan and is distinctively marked, with black circles on its otherwise pure white wings (below left); the abdomen, hidden by its wings when the moth is at rest, is metallic blue with bright orange markings. Found across the eastern U.S., Giant Leopard Moths are especially common in the south central and southeastern states. From early summer through fall, adult moths--or at least the males--often come at night to electric lamps; some lepidopterists report that females of this species may not be attracted to lights.

Giant Leopard Moth, Ecpantheria scriboniaLike many moths, the female Giant Leopard Moth produces pheromones from a gland at the tip of her abdomen. These potent chemicals carry on the wind and are detected by antennae on the male, who follows the scent to his prospective mate. After copulation, the female lays her eggs on a wide variety of host plants--including violets, plantains, dandelion, cherries, maples, and willows whose leaves are eaten by her larvae--and probably dies soon thereafter, while the male my seek another mate. Fertile eggs develop and hatch within days, after which the larvae dine on leaves of their respective host plants and go through several growth stages in which they must molt their restrictive outer skins. To our knowledge, adult Giant Leopard Moths do not eat and spend their short lives reproducing.

The Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar spends the winter in a state of hibernation, although in more temperate parts of its range it may wake temporarily on mild days for a mid-winter snack. When spring arrives, Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars become active again and feed heavily until optimal size is reached, at which time each larva shucks off its spiny exoskeleton one more time and makes a pupa (below right). Giant Leopard Moth, Ecpantheria scribonia, pupa with old exoskeletonThe adult metamorphoses therein and emerges after only a few weeks; thus, the cycle begins again for the Giant Leopard Moth--whose larvae we encourage at Hilton Pond Center because they are known to dine on Japanese Honeysuckle. The caterpillar we found and photographed will need to change its diet, however, because we do all we can to eliminate invasive honeysuckle vines. Fortunately, soon after we let it go the black, fuzzy caterpillar crawled into a patch of wildflowers and chowed down hungrily on the underside of a heart-shaped Blue Violet leaf (below).

Caterpillar of Giant Leopard Moth, Ecpantheria scribonia
All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Thanks to Rusty Trump of Suwanee, Georgia for his photos of the adult Giant Leopard Moth and the pupa from which it came.


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BIRDS BANDED THIS WEEK at
HILTON POND CENTER
8-14 June 2002

SPECIES BANDED THIS WEEK
Ruby-throated Hummingbird--1
Carolina Chickadee--2
House Finch--14
Tufted Titmouse--5
Downy Woodpecker--1
Carolina Wren--1
Brown Thrasher--2


NOTABLE RECAPTURES
(with original banding dates)

House Finch (1)
07/25/01--2nd year male

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

WEEKLY BANDING TOTAL
7 species
26 individuals


YEARLY BANDING TOTAL
(2002)
55 species
1,296 individuals


BANDING GRAND TOTAL
(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
41,015 individuals


SIGHTINGS OF INTEREST
--An
Eastern Phoebe was sitting on five chicks this week in a nest on the front porch of Hilton Pond Center's old farmhouse

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