It is fall all over the place here in the Ozarks! The sunburnt days of summer drought have been replaced by moisture-laden mists and golden afternoon sunlight – perfect for a long leisurely walk through the woods. Sometimes I get lucky and run across one of the creative and colorful caterpillars of the Ozarks.
Almost immediately after Dean and arrived in the Ozarks those many years ago, we became acquainted with a large, lime-green caterpillar sporting an impressive array of thin, branching, bristly spines that closely resembled coral. Despite the understanding of what those spines might be able to do and my pleadings not to do it, Dean couldn’t resist touching it. As you might imagine, this particular experiment taught us both how painful a caterpillar’s sting could be and ever since then, neither of us has been terribly anxious to touch fuzzy caterpillars with which we are not familiar.
Since that first encounter, we have made an effort to find new and interesting caterpillars to share with one another. At times it seems as if we will never run out newly weird and wonderful species. Until just recently, we had not been able to find a guidebook with pictures of the larval stages of both moths and butterflies, so many of the caterpillar species we found over the years remain unidentified. Like the winged adults that they will become, caterpillars come in creative, colorful and even bizarre forms meant to fool, or even threaten would-be predators.
Among the more common caterpillars in our neck of the Ozarks are those of the black swallowtail butterfly seen above. These caterpillars are fantastically striped in green, black, white and gold and when disturbed, bright orange horn-like organs pop out of the top of their heads. Preferring to feed on umbel family members, like dill or fennel, these caterpillars are able to give off odd and unpleasant odors when disturbed.
The common tomato hornworm is one of several species of night flying sphinx moths. These large, lovely green caterpillars have white curving stripes separated by small dots all along their sides. They also have jet-black, horn-like appendages on either end. But neither black swallowtails nor hornworms sting; their appendages look threatening, but are completely harmless. This summer I found a group of unusual black hornworms and am still trying to find out if they are simply a morph of the green variety, or a separate species altogether.
Of all the wonderful species, my favorite caterpillars are those of the tiger and spicebush swallowtails, whose larval forms have very large, swollen front ends with almost comic “faces” on them. These “faces” often include smiling mouths and large, startling googly eye spots on either side of the top of the head. What animal would want to eat something with eyes like that?
Another caterpillar that would be deemed instantly inedible would be the larval form of the tiger swallowtail butterfly, which looks exactly like a bird dropping. The image above is of a swallowtail larva feeding on a lemon tree in my parents yard in southern Mississippi. While I am not sure of the exact species of this larva, all swallowtail larva resemble bird droppings in their various, unappetizing forms.
One caterpillar that took some time to identify was not that of a butterfly, but a moth. Arguably the most beautiful moth in the Ozarks, the Luna Moth caterpillar (Actias luna) is no less striking than its adult form. These big, lime green caterpillars feed primarily on the leaves of walnut, hickory, persimmon and sweet gum. When ready, they pupate on the ground among dense leaf litter. There can be up to three generations of Luna moths each year.
Among the many interesting caterpillars found in the Ozarks are fuzzy worms. These caterpillars have very long fur-like hairs that extend beyond their body, making them look much larger than they are. The bristly fur and varying color patterns make them unappealing to predators and human touch. The most common of these hairy wonders are known collectively as fuzzy bears, wooly worms and wooly bears. While they come in many sizes and colors, the most well known is the larval stage of the very beautiful Isabella tiger moth. This is the caterpillar that most people refer to as a wooly bear. These caterpillars have been used for decades to predict the severity of the coming winter.
Fall begs us to breathe deeply and inhale a new scent lingering in the air and it prompts us to change our rhythms to the tune of another facet of reality. As we watch all things in nature make their preparations for the Great Sleep, it reminds me to get out and enjoy what is left of these relatively mild temperatures. Now is a great time for mushroom forays, nature hikes, and that last float down the river – and of course, hunting up some cool pretty caterpillars!
If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Available in print and eBook through the Show Me Oz bookstore.