Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 24, 2008

A Tiger in Leopard’s Clothing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:10 pm

When driving along autumn back roads it is wise to keep your eye on the road.  It is necessary to stay on the right side and watch for on coming traffic, of course, but it is also fun to see what is crossing the pavement ahead.  Caterpillars are frequently encountered as jay walkers this time of year and they are, believe it or not, easy to spot. The fuzzy caterpillars of the Tiger Moth family are capable of a pretty good 50 yard dash over the centerline. One such speedster is the larvae of the Giant Leopard Moth.

  These larvae feed on common roadside weeds such as plantain & dandelion, so are present at the roadside for much of the summer. Prompted by the diminishing daylight, their tiny lives take on sense of urgency. Not only do they eat more, in order to gain some bulk, but they become wanderers seeking potential hibernation sites.  This, by the way, is the answer to the question “why did the Leopard moth cross the road.”  They cross our paths in the process of performing what can only be called mini-migrations.

  The Leopard Moth is a sizable beast as a caterpillar and as an adult. The adult (see here) is a real beauty – endowed with striking black circles against a white background. With a three inch wingspan and such a distinctive spot pattern, it earns the title. At the moment, however, this species is still in the larvae stage. The spiny caterpillars are fully furred and relatively un-distinguished except by the bright scarlet skin which is visible between the segments (see above).

  When disturbed, such as the example above which was freshly plucked from the pavement, tiger moth caterpillars roll up into a defensive ball.  By presenting a prickly mass of spikes to a potential predator, the beast looks to be quite inedible. 

  This tactic is only put into play for a short time – as an immediate reaction. If over handled, or set down, the larva soon hangs the defense and goes for the running game. All 16 feet are put into play and the creature launches into a dead run.  If the thought of a running caterpillar is funny, wait until you actually see one in action.

  I was able to film this guy at the moment he started his dead heat.  Take a look here (Vroom vroom), and you’ll see that he starts off as a spine ball, quickly unfurls, and then begins his flight. Oddly enough this fellow did a few ground pawing moves with his back eight legs as if to show off for the camera.  The only appropriate subtitle for this shot is “vroom vroom.”

  All of this rushing will soon come to an end as the days get colder. The Leopard moth caterpillar will “den” up under a log or deep in the leaf litter and wait out the winter. Spring will find him back into the running game, but only for a short while. He will then spin a cocoon, pupate, and emerge as a full fledged cat – changing his stripes along the way.


  1. This fellow has a long lost ‘cousin’ he knows naught about:
    The black spiny sea-urchin.


    Comment by SeaWolf — September 29, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  2. You know, he does look very urchin like when balled up, but he sure outruns his oceanic look-like.

    Comment by Gerry Wykes — October 7, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

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    Comment by Jamie — November 23, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

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