Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 13, 2011

Hair Today, Back Tomorrow

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:45 pm

It’s time for one of those simple blog posts.  Nothing heavy to digest – just a basic “let’s talk about the wonders of nature” type entry.  I’d call it blog light, but that might imply that one could get drunk on the heavier stuff or, worse yet, it might imply that “heavy” means important and “light” mean un-important. This would further insinuate that I believe most of my posts to be important – to which you might rightfully respond “well la-de-da, aren’t we getting a bit heady and self important.” This could end up with some sort of occupy e-movement (where you end up living in a tent in my front yard).  Well, let’s just shake on it and agree that in this case light means slightly enlightening.  O.K.? Good.

So, what do I have to offer? My goodness, if it isn’t a wad of hair stuck onto a tree with some white foam attached. I’ll bet Gerry is going to say that this is some sort of animal poo or vomitous evidence of a sick squirrel. No, my friends, this is a Tussock Moth cocoon and egg case.  The cocoon is empty but the eggs are full of spring promise.

Before going too much further, let me explain that such structures can commonly be found along the winter trail.  This one was attached to the protected side of a Red Maple tree trunk. It was located about 4 feet up from the ground. The cocoon was woven tight to the trunk and the Tussock caterpillar that made it used a combination of silk and body fibers to finish it. Tussock caterpillars are members of a family of hairy caterpillars (at the risk of getting heavy, this group is called Lamantriidae). These larvae look like walking toothbrushes with distinct tufts or clusters of hair along their backs.  They virtually shed their body hairs and weave them into the matrix of the cocoon as they go. Naturally, they are quite naked by the time they are encased within their hair house (shocking but true).

The larvae make their cocoons during the warm season and quietly pupate inside (wouldn’t we all like to indulge in some quiet pupation at times?).  Most cocoon-making moth larvae overwinter in these cases and therefore weave the silk into a tight fibrous bag able to endure both water and woodpecker. Our Tussock friends, however, have so such ambitions. Their final result is a translucent gossamer sack. The pupae (the naked pupae, I might add) is highly visible inside. They will emerge as adults long before winter arrives.

The males emerge as medium sized moths with brown patterned wings. The females emerge as flightless creatures without wings.  It may not be polite to call them fat, but they are little more than egg-filled abdomens. Of course, it is their cocoons that make them look fat.  Because they can’t fly away, the gals hang onto their old cocoon and begin to waft pheromones (love perfumes) into the air. Amorous males, enticed by the irresistible scent of delicate woman-hood, locate the females and mate with them. The fertilized female then lays her egg mass right on the cocoon. She dies, he dies and that is it. The eggs remain to carry on the family line through to the next spring.

A detailed look at the egg case reveals a cluster of hundreds of whitish eggs under the dry foamy coating (see above). Each has a Kirk Douglas dimple in the center. The coating serves to protect them through the cold season, but tough shells and plenty of natural anti-freeze also contribute to their survival.

Since the eggs will be in place all winter long, this gives you plenty of time to find a few. If, while you are searching, you happen upon an empty hairy gossamer cocoon lacking this egg cluster, then you have come upon the former abode of a male Tussock Moth (see below). Please note the rumpled empty pupal skin and the dirty socks left lying about inside and feel free to give them a condescending Tussock “Tsk tsk.”

2 Comments »

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    Comment by taylor — December 14, 2011 @ 8:34 am

  2. Gerry – I love this post! Thank you for your view into this species’ life cycle. Can’t wait to go out and look for the cocoons on my next walk. And all of your photographs are amazing – beautiful work!

    Comment by Cynthia M — December 27, 2011 @ 9:33 am

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