Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hickory Horned Devil, encore presentation

I don't resort to many re-runs on this blog. This is a post originally put up almost 1 year ago, but honestly, I didn't have much of an audience at the time, so I figured it's worth another run since the subject matter has a bit of "weird" factor. Also, I now know there are enough nature nuts out there who can really enjoy (or at least tolerate) this post. Have fun!

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 am SO outta here!

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.

-by the way, I'm not really scared here - just hammin' it up for the camera (imagine that)

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!


Steve Willson said...

People bring these caterpillars into the office each year asking for ID help. One man had the caterpillar in a shoe box wrapped with a whole roll of packing tape. He walked in wearing leather gloves and his hands were shaking so much I'm surprised the caterpillar wasn't shaken to death. I'm also waiting to see my first adult moth.

Gabrielle said...

Heather; count me in as one of the nature nuts who eats this stuff up. (Uhh, not literally, though. Salamanders are too cute and that caterpillar is too scary/cool.)

I also really enjoyed your sapsucker post. Isn't nature wonderful?!

Thanks for your comment about my Avocet painting! I think I'm going to do B is for Yellow-Headed Blackbird next...

Heather said...

Steve - Wow, the fellow you describe with the leather gloves and shaking hands should at least commended for his bravery for capturing the thing in the first place... he must have been petrified! That poor caterpillar, though!

Gabrielle - Good, good, I'm glad you like it! I'll look forward to seeing the next bird in your ABC series! Both the YH Blackbird and the Avocet would be life birds for me!

Carol Mattingly said...

Love those little creatures. Don't see enough of them. Have fun in Red River Gorge. Great place to hike. Have you been to Natural Bridge, it's right next to the Gorge? Go there is not.

The Early Birder said...

Don't think I ever seen anythinglike it. If I did I'd probably take one step back & then use the camera. Very interesting life cycle but not unusual. FAB

Nature As Is said...

Well Heather I have never seen anything like that in my life! The red lizard thing or the Horned little creature!!! I don't think I would have held either. Although at a safe distance a picture would do! :)

Meg at Art of Rustic said...

god, but I've missed your blog! I am back in cyberspace and just lapped up your recent posts. Hickory Horned Devils--yep, we used to get inquiries about them at the Conservatory all the time. I've also seen one in real life, or should I say surreal life. You got great pictures of yours (as usual!). And did you know that chipmunks are my absolute favorite rodent? argh! so cute!
See you again soon! --Meg formerly of Livin' the Life : )

Shelley said...

What fun creatures you have over there Heather! Great shots!

Anonymous said...

Now that's a monster, but beautiful non the less. Only having a small garden, I'm glad we don't get those in the UK, I wouldnt have a leaf left lol. I think you have a great blog with some excellent photo's.


Kelly said... right!! I would love to see him, though. I can't imagine coming across him for the first time. That bug looks like he's turquoise-colored--it's just not natural! ;-) And...I love your little orange critter. I don't even know what an eft he more salamander or lizard?

Heather said...

Carol - We are looking forward to our trip to Red River. Come to think of it, I think that was the first place I ever saw a red eft! We visited Natural Bridge when we were there before, but we will definitely check it out again!

Frank - That caterpillar was quite a sight! By now I realize that their life cycle is the norm among moths, but when I first found that out, it amazed me!

Crista - That caterpillar tested my creep-out factor, and I FAILED! Hee hee....

Meg - So glad to know you're back on the interwebs! I'm glad to hear that you have a favorite rodent - not just a favorite animal, but a favorite rodent. I love chippers, too - just want to pick one up and kiss it!

Shelley - Fun, and a little bit freaky!

Martyn and Jill - I wish I could have seen this caterpillar munching up some leaves - I'm sure it eats a lot, being so big and all! Thanks for your comments, and for stopping by!

Kelly - I know what you mean about the color not being natural... guess he needs those spikes to keep the predators away, b/c otherwise he sticks out like a sore thumb! As for the eft, it is the juvenile stage of the eastern newt (a salamander) - hopefully it found it's way to some pond nearby to live out its adult life!

RuthieJ said...

Holy Cow Heather, that caterpillar was huge! I've never seen anything like it.
I've also found some good websites with the State of Minnesota for insect and frog ID, but the ones from Ohio and Wisconsin have been helpful too (google always directs me to them)

Heather said...

Ruthie - Can you imagine doing a butterfly (well, moth) ranch for THESE caterpillars?! Egads! Yes, I agree, state websites (from the DNR and the like) are often very helpful for all kinds of wild animal IDs.

Angela said...

A neighbor found one of these in his yard. All the kids were amazed! As a teacher, I am torn between keeping this incredible creature to show my students and letting nature take its course. It is currently rolling happily under my gardenia bush by my front porch. It is in its final tourquoise stage so I guess we will see if it manages to burrow down, or dies from all the attention it it getting from us.