I came upon a new caterpillar last week as I was rounding the bend in the path near the Dinosaur Trail. When I say new, I mean new to me, I had never seen this particular species before. I didn’t know what it was. It took nearly a week to determine its identity. I’m confident now in saying that it is an Eastern Panthea, or Tufted White Pine Caterpillar or Panthea furcilla.
As one of its names suggest the caterpillar feeds on pines, but also spruce, tamarack and perhaps other conifers. We have plenty of pines here at the Museum as well as a few “other conifers” so its no real surprise that this caterpillar is present, even if I hadn’t seen it previously.
This species is restricted to the eastern half of the country. The caterpillar (about 40 mm) will eventually become one of the many small (35-50 cm wingspan), gray-brown, nondescript moths that most of us perhaps see and brush off as “just another moth,” if we acknowledge it at all. And, although some species of moth in the Noctuidae family of moths, of which this moth belongs, are serious forest pests, this one is referred to in one reference as having “…no economic importance.”
So why get all excited about a dingy little moth that most of us will never see and that has no apparent economic value, one way or the other? Well, it’s not really a dingy little moth. Most of the little brown or gray moths have fine reticulations, bands, or other markings on their wings that, when you stop and take a close peek at, are quite pleasing to the eye if not truly amazing in their intricacies. It has taken millions of years for those caterpillars and moths to evolve into what they look like today.
And, in my opinion, it’s always exciting to see something new, a new species of plant, insect, bird, or mammal, that you’ve, or should I say, that I’ve never seen before. It’s interesting to find out a little bit about where it fits into the big picture, even though you may never encounter that species again.
Chances are most of us will go our entire lives without seeing all of the species of plants and animals that exist in the world (realistically, an unachievable endeavor). None of us will ever see the 160,000 or so species of moths that inhabit this planet. Most of us will never see the 11,000 some species that live in the United States alone. But, whenever something new pops up you might as well take a look at it. You will most definitely learn something, and that is not a bad thing.
Here’s a few more photos of the Eastern Panthea from different angles.
So, the next time you’re walking along and you spot something crawling across the path in front of you, stop and give a look, I bet it’ll be a learning experience.