Originally posted September 16, 2008:
One great thing about living in the woods is that it's a veritable Discovery Zone. I see so many new things in our woods, and if I'm lucky, I'll see it more than once. For example, spotting frogs and toads is not too uncommon around here. And just the other day, for the second time, I spotted a Red Eft. These pictures were actually taken over 3 years ago, but at least you can see what I'm talking about. The one I saw the other day I actually managed to pick up to let it run around on my hand for a minute.
I also picked up a frog the other day. So it would only seem natural that I would want to pick this up.
Gaaaah! What the...?!
Dave found this the other day, wandering around the base of one of our Shagbark Hickory trees. I wasn't home at the time, but he knew I would want to see it, so he contained it for a bit until I got home. At first I was freaked out, as he told me I would be, but then fascination took over. He had already done some Googling and found out that it's a Hickory Horned Devil.
Here is a description, as found on the Ohio State Unversity Extention Fact Sheet on Giant Caterpillars: "This caterpillar is the larva of the Royal Walnut Moth, also known as the Regal Moth. The larva is not one for a timid person to suddenly discover. It has a scary, frightful appearance resembling a small dragon with up to five pairs of long, curving hornlike structures over the back of its thorax with the rest of the body covered with shorter spikes. The body color ranges from deep blue-green to tan with orange spikes tipped with black. Shorter spikes are black. Though very ferocious appearing, it is quite harmless to handle. They are enormous in size, being five to six inches long and nearly 3/4-inch in diameter. They feed for a period of 37 to 42 days on the leaves of hickory, walnut, butternut, pecan, ash, lilac, persimmon, sycamore, sumac and sweet gum. Larvae mature in late summer, wandering around searching for a place to burrow underground to pupate. Overwintering occurs in the pupal stage."
By the way, I have to take this opportunity to plug state extension offices. Do you want to know what that funny bug is crawling around your house? Do you want to know why the leaves on the Sycamore trees around the county are turning brown prematurely? Want to learn how to raise cattle? Want an analysis of your soil? Your local extension office can help you with these questions. For folks in Ohio, check the Ohio State University Extension website for all kinds of helpful stuff, including links to county offices. For those in other states, just type in "your state here extension offices" in any search engine and you should come up with something. I have found the Athens County Extension office's weekly online updates to be a valuable resource. Now back to the show.
We had seen some pictures of people holding one of these devils in their hand, and I was determined I was going to do the same.
Or maybe not. This was NOT a happy caterpillar - every time I touched it, it would thrash about, and that really freaked me out. I knew it wouldn't hurt me, but it was still alarming just the same. Dave thought it was too bad he didn't get a picture of me when I jumped the first time I touched it. This is as close as I got to holding it. Also, these pictures give you a better perspective of just how big this thing is.
Will we ever see one of these again? Who knows. Maybe I'll be a little more brave if there is a next time. Hey, at least I touched it. That's more than I can say for the guy who took all the pictures.
So what makes a creature like this develop such ferocious-looking characteristics? Are there other caterpillars out there that are equally (or more) alarming in appearance? And for those that don't look intimidating, what is their defense against predation (assuming that's why the Hickory Horned Devil is built this way)? Poison in their flesh? Something else?
Other fascinating facts: The adult moths have no mouth parts and so are unable to eat. But they don't need to. Once they emerge as an adult moth, they mate during the second evening after their emergence, eggs are laid the third evening, and then they die. Can you imagine what it would be like to eat like mad as a baby for a few weeks to a few months, hibernate for 1-2 years, emerge full grown and in a completely different form, have sex on day 2, deposit eggs, then die, THE END? This is one of the great mysteries of the animal world that I can't wrap my brain around. I also wonder if the passage of time seems eternal to these small creatures with short life-spans. Maybe an hour seems like days. Or maybe they have no comprehension of time whatsoever, other than the natural rhythm set for them by their ancestors.
Nature's Discovery Zone frequently reminds me about how much I DON'T know, and makes me relish each day as an opportunity for new knowledge, and new questions to ask. I was always fond of school, and I love learning new things. As I grow older, I become more and more excited about being a student of life.
Back to the present... earlier in the summer, when I was out photographing some cool moths (like the Io and Polyphemus moths), I was really hoping to spot a Royal Walnut moth, but alas, it did not happen (I didn't even see any Luna moths this summer, which is unusual). Perhaps another summer down the road I'll finally get to see the more beautiful manifestation of this creature!