Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 1, 2009

A Crappy Little Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:06 pm

Based on the title , you might think that the subject of this discussion, the Viceroy caterpillar, has a miserable life. Actually, quite the opposite is true. This is a beast for whom being crappy means staying alive – ah,ah,ah,ah, staying alive, staying alive, ah, ah, ah ah, staying a…….sorry, I had a momentary case of the heeby Beegees.  Anyway, my point is that this caterpillar literally makes a living looking like crap. Birds won’t eat their own droppings, you see, so what better way for a fleshy edible young’n to avoid being dinner than to look real fecal-like?

The young caterpillar (pictured above) has a dark body complete with a milky white saddle and  fake seeds to complete it’s dropping imitation. The only thing that looks slightly out of place are the two spiny knobs behind the head. These risky fashion statements are quickly lowered when the creature is disturbed. It begins to curl around (see here) and eventually doubles back on itself to complete the ruse (see below). Now tell me that’s not a bird dropping. O.K., so you know it’s not, because you are a superior human being. But imagine what a bird would think when coming upon this scene. The human equivalent would be seeing a Baby Ruth bar in a pool – it’s not what you think it is but are you going to pick it up? I think not.

When the larvae gets a bit older, it looks slightly less poop-like (see below and here). It retains its general crappy features but appears to put more emphasis on those spiny knobs. In fact, it appears to draw some defensive value out of these things by looking totally inedible. Imagine a cow pie adorned with mace clubs sitting on your breakfast plate and you have the idea. Still, when disturbed, the larvae curls back just like it did as a little turd.

The whole life cycle of the Viceroy is based on imitation and fakery. The egg looks like a plant gall and  the pupae mimics a drippy bird doo. Even the black and orange adult looks just like a Monarch butterfly for goodness sake. One might wonder if the real Viceroy ever has a chance for expression. You know, does it ever want to bust out and yell “I’m as mad as heck and I’m not going to pretend anymore. I’m a beautifully sensitive creature with the ability to draw, write poetry, and make pottery. Why, just the other day I wrote a love poem called ‘I is a wee me’.” Such expression would be sheer insecticide, however. Expressive insects become real bird crap. Crap mimics don’t.

There is one phase of Viceroy mimicry that is not passive imitation. The oft-repeated idea that the good-tasting Viceroy adult mimics the appearance of the poisonous Monarch is just not true. In reality, the Viceroy may be worse tasting than the Monarch and they imitate each other. In other words, the Monarch and the Viceroy both dress in the gang clothing of the “we be bad” club and dare all comers to try them out. Technically this is called Mullerian Mimicry when two equally noxious creatures mimic each other to the benefit of both.

The Viceroy does what it takes to get life done even if it means putt’n up with a little crap.  In a way you could say that they represent the ultimate in creative expression.

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