Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 14, 2008

Jeepers Creepers

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:46 pm


Because there are so many eye-popping insects to choose from, it is almost un-fair to limit this discussion to only two of them.  But, since life in general isn’t fair, I feel no particular guilt in making a purely personal selection here. I present, therefore, a baby butterfly and a beetle for your curious consideration.  Take a peek at either a larval Spicebush Swallowtail or an adult Dogbane Beetle and you’ll find something staring right back at you.  In the case of the second beast, the face staring back will be a very familiar one.

  The adult version of the Spicebush Swallowtail is a handsome dark butterfly with a wash of electric blue on its back wings. This species is known by the Latin name of Papilio troilus. The latter half of the name refers to a character of Greek legend known as Troilus – a person known as the “paragon of youthful male beauty.”  This young fellow was slain by that heel Achilles and the dastardly act is depicted on the decorative panels of many Grecian Urns.

  I bring this up because the caterpillar of this butterfly bears a striking resemblance to the Troilus of old. Take a look at this image – the kid is the one on the horse. Look at his eyes and then look at the picture of his namesake larva shown above. See what I mean?  As an additional layer of similarity, both Troilus’s “urn eye” and the caterpillar’s “back eyes” are merely artistic depictions of eyes. Those larval eyes are not real and, since the Grecian youth is merely a figment of legend, his eyes were never real to begin with.

  Spicebush larvae resort to trickery as a means of survival.  The caterpillars possess those fake Greek eyes on their backs in order to startle potential predators.  During the day they hide themselves within the protective folds of a leafy taco.  They feed on Sassafras and Spicebush plants and deliberately draw together the leaf edges with silk to form a larval chamber (see here).  Coming out at night to feed, they rest within the chamber by day. If an inquisitive bird opens the flap it will be startled by the sudden appearance of a pair of bright eyes. On top of this, this is another one of those caterpillars that have a forked stink horn (called an osmetrium) that everts out from behind their head when alarmed. This act, combined with the eye thing, makes the caterpillar look more like a snake with a forked tongue than the juicy edible insect that it is. The whole effect is disturbing enough to frighten away meek hearted enemies who are heard to declare “Jeepers Creepers where’d you get those Peepers?” as they flee.

  The second eye-popper to consider is the Dogbane Beetle (see here). I encountered a few of these brilliant beetles just a few feet away from the lair of the Spicebush caterpillar.  They are a common insect, but restricted to places where Dogbane, or Indian Hemp, grows (see one on food plant here). To say this insect is a living jewel is an understatement.  Even taxonomists had to perform double speak when naming this one – Chrysochus auratus, their Latin name, could literally be translated as “Golden-gilded Gold” Bug.  

  To be fair about it, this particular bug is a member of a family of beetles called leaf beetles and all members of this group bear the “Gold-gilded” pre-fix label. It’s just that this one is really special, I guess.  To be un-fair about it, however, gold is not the first thing that comes to mind when looking at the bright reflective colors found on the creature’s wing covers. As you can see it’s a wonderful mix of metallic blue, green, violet, and a hint of gold that meets the eye. These creatures make no attempt to conceal themselves and they bear their splendor proudly.

  Look very closely at the picture you’ll notice my reflection in the shell (see here). The image is a fish-eyed image of me. I was wearing a white shirt that day and you can plainly see me, my shirt, and a contorted view of my face with a camera in front of it. So, the face looking back at me from the back of this insect was my own – an image equally as scary as the fake snake on the caterpillar.

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