Tres Orugas Camufladas (Three Camouflaged Caterpillars)

Caterpillars are consumed by everything from wasps, birds, and even people. It’s in their best interest to conceal themselves from potential predators. Three caterpillars that do their best at making themselves invisible are acitve now. All are moth larvae. If you know their language, where and when to look for them, they can be spotted fairly easily.

The first, the Common Pug (Eupithecia miserulata) can be found on herbaceous flowers growing along the pathways in Catch the Wind. We’ve seen the pug before, on daisies.

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A Common Pug on rudbeckia, or Black-eyed Susan, growing in Catch the Wind.
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This pug is decidely yellow, the color of the flower it’s eating.

This small caterpillar (about 15 mm) seems to change color according to its diet. It’s often the same color as the flower that it’s consuming, making it more difficult to see by, say, a hungry bird.

Another small caterpillar which blends in well with its environment is the Camouflaged Looper (Synchlora sp.).

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A Camouflaged Looper atop the seed cone of rudbeckia.
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The path made by this camouflaged looper is clearly visible on the seed cone of this flower as are the tiny pieces of seeds and other material attached to its back.

This half-pint caterpillar (aprrox. 10 mm) uses a different strategy for concealing itself than does the pug above. It chews off pieces of the flower or plant that it’s feeding on and attaches the pieces to its back. It matches the color and texture of whatever flower it happens to be on at the time, adjusting itself to the situation.

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The looper moving to another flower on the same plant. Perhaps it thought its cover blown by all of the attention I was paying it.

The looper pictured above, after having been photographed, crawled down from the flower it had been on and moved to another flower on the same plant.

The next day I noticed that the caterpillar was sporting a brown and yellow outfit!

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The looper wearing a new coat.

Why had this caterpillar waited to apply the yellow petals to itself until it moved to this particular flower?

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Here the looper chews off a piece of rudbeckia flower petal to attach to itself.

There are many other examples of how this caterpillar adorns itself at BugGuide.net, I think it’s worth a visit.

The third caterpillar in this group, another tiny specimen (about 10-12 mm), is the Redbud Leaf Folder (Fascista cercerisella). This prison-striped moth larva uses a most obvious method of concealment, it makes a fold in a redbub leaf and seals it with silk to hold it together while it consumes the leaf from within. They may also overlap two leaves, attaching them with silk, but the folded-leaf method is the classic leaf folder tactic.

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This leaf has three leaf folders concealed within the fold. Can’t see the third? Look below.
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The arrow points to a young leaf folder that has not yet acquired the black & white barring.

The problem with the leaf-folding strategy is that the leaf is very easy to spot by naturalists, and other critters, who are looking for Redbud Leaf Folders. The caterpillars may as well spell out on the leaf in big, bold silken letters, OPEN ME, THERE’S A CATERPILLAR INSIDE!”

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This leaf is a dead give-way that there may be a Redbud Leaf Folder inside
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The silk “tie-downs” that the caterpillar uses to secure its hideaway are visible in this photo.

The trees that have leaf folders on them usually have many leaf folders on them and a bird could have a feast moving from leaf to leaf. However, I’ve discovered that the leaf folder has another strategy for eluding predators. Upon being uncovered the caterpillars often wriggle frantically, sliding off the leaf to the ground and the safety of the leaf litter below.

Falling to the ground may seem like a death sentence for a tiny caterpillar like the leaf folder who relies upon the leaves of the redbud as food, but since these little caterpillars pupate in the leaf litter beneath the trees, supposedly, after the leaf they have been munching on dries and falls to the ground, they may look at their escape to the ground as an early retirement and pupate ahead of schedule. Perhaps only the larvae that are ready to pupate wriggle off of the leaf (a research project for a biology student or a summer camper?).

I’m not so sure about how and when they pupate though. Although some references state that the caterpillars fall to the ground with the leaves in which they conceal themselves, I’ve opened many a fold and have found only silk and frass (poop) within. The empty folds lead me to believe that the larvae drop off the leaves when they’re ready to pupate and do not necessarily wait for a ride to the ground within the folded leaves, if indeed they do pupate on the ground, which does seem likely.

Now that you know what to look for and where to look, go out and have a scout around. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find any pugs or loopers, they’re not that easy to spot. You should, however, be able to pick out the leaf folders with little or no problem!

2 responses to Tres Orugas Camufladas (Three Camouflaged Caterpillars)

  1. Avatar
    Judy Overby says:

    Greg, I am glad to learn about these little caterpillars. I have been observing them on my neighbors rudbeckia and hadn’t taken the time to research the species. I frequent BugGuide but was glad to see this posted on Facebook.

    • Greg Dodge, Ranger
      Greg Dodge, Ranger says:

      Good, I’m glad you read the post and was able to identify the caterpillars on your neighbor’s flowers. The internet is amazing, and BugGuide.net is a great resource. However, there’s nothing like a good book to browse through to nail down an ID. I recommend this book for caterpillars “Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History,” David L. Wagner.
      Thanks, Judy

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