While out adventuring with his classmates one day this October, a student from our Nature Center Preschool called out, “I found something!” Typically, with the inquisitiveness of a four-year-old in mind, this statement could mean any range of things, from a leaf the student had never seen before, something which may be “old hat” to us grizzled nature educators, to something more special.
In this case, the discovery was of an unusual kind, indeed.
What you see here is a Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Halysidota tessellaris. The timing was just right to find it up here in the north, between July and the first frost, and because of their coloration, they tend to be easy to spot when they sit on the tops of leaves, like this one was. They eat a wide variety of plants, and upon transformation become beautiful moths, spotting blues and oranges on their thoraxes. They are sometimes known as “Pale Tiger Moths.”
The tufts of long setae (hairs) at the ends of this caterpillar are called “hair pencils,” and are probably used in preemptive anti-predation, an attempt to visually throw off predators, tricking them into thinking the prey might be poisonous. Is this one? We’re not sure, but the fact that it so freely wanders in conspicuous places hints that it has the confidence of a critter that carries alkaloid content.
After two days of captive study, this character was released into the wild once again. Will we see it again? If we do, we may not recognize it!