It’s a Mayfly…It’s a Moth…It’s Thyridopteryx

Mississippi River @ Hwy 62 bridge

One of the nice things about the study of insects is the endless opportunity for discovery. It could be a new species, or it might just be something already known but not yet seen personally. I’ve been collecting insects most of my life, and although much of it has been done in far away places the bulk has occurred in my home state of Missouri. Despite my long experience in this state, this past summer I had the opportunity to experience collecting within the state in a way that I’ve not yet done before—blacklighting up and down the length of the Mississippi River regularly during the months of July through September. Each time, I would arrive at the selected spot in the early evening while there was still daylight and search the (hopefully sandy) beaches for evidence of several tiger beetle species that might occur in such habitat. Then, as the sky turned aglow from the setting sun, I would setup the blacklights and wait for the appearance of those particular tiger beetles that are attracted to such.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis | Mississippi Co., Missouri

Expectedly, beetles were seen at only some sites, and numbers and diversity generally decreased as summer approached its end. By early September beetles were no longer showing up even though the habitat seemed good (I guess that’s why they call them “summer” species). Still, on this particular night, the lights setup at the Hwy 62 bridge in far southeastern Missouri were attracting a variety of other insects, so I kept them on to see what might come in. I had nothing else to do. At some point, I noticed a strange insect that seemed like a cross between a mayfly and a moth, and then another…and another. Although I had never seen one of these in person before, I knew exactly what they were—male bagworms! Bagworms (order Lepidoptera, family Psychidae), of course, are extraordinarily common in Missouri, and the sight of dozens or even hundreds of their silken/twig bags attached to ornamental evergreen shrubs in the neighborhood where I lived as a kid remains vivid. I can remember “popping” the larvae inside to see their innards ooze out from the tip of the bag (I know—I’m not proud of it) and even cut open a few of the bags to see the larvae inside (that is, once the less sadistic and more scientifically curious side of me took over). Despite all of this, I had never seen an adult bagworm—male or female—until this night.

Dorsal view

Obviously, these are males because they have wings—females remain wingless into adulthood and, in fact, never even leave the bag in which they’ve spent their entire lives. Bagworm males are distinctive in that their wings are virtually devoid of any scales, and I surmise that the generic name of the most common species in eastern North America—Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis—is derived from the Greek thyris (window) and the Latin ptera (wing) in reference to this. I was fascinated by the strange appearance of these moths and even more fascinated by the curious manner in which the males held out the tip of their abdomen when at rest; reminiscent of a female releasing sex pheromone. This can’t be true, because it is the females that call from their bags to attract the males, and since the females remain within their bag, the male must insert his abdomen through the tip of the bag and all the way to the top where he can reach the female genital opening. Thus, the male abdomen is highly extensible and prehensile—I guess the males can’t keep an abdomen with that much stretching capacity still for very long.

Two males

Based on gestalt, I presumed these represented T. ephemeraeformis since it is such a common and widespread species, but it’s not always wise to presume, especially in a relatively more southern location. The Moth Photographers Group lists five species in this genus in North America, two of which (T. alcora and T. meadii) seem to be southwestern in distribution. Of the remaining three, T. ephaemeraeformis is the only one I could find any photos or information beyond simple listings (the Moth Photographers Group lists no distribution records for T. rileyi or T. davidsoni), so I asked my lepidopterist friend Phil Koenig for his opinion. Phil informed me that T. ephemeraeformis has been recorded in Missouri 285 times in 49 counties, while T. rileyi is known from the state based only very old literature records and T. davidsoni not at all. Thus, the odds are definitely favor these males representing T. ephemeraeformis. Late summer is apparently the prime period of adult bagworm activity. I’ve not done much blacklighting late in the season because most of the beetles on which I’ve focused over the years and that are attracted to blacklights are active more during spring and early summer. This could explain why I’ve not until now seen male bagworms despite their commonness in Missouri.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Frustrating Emerald

After years in the field looking for insects, one develops an eye not only for recognizing insects but also recognizing when something doesn’t look quite right. That happened to me early this past September at a spot along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri where I had stopped during late afternoon to look for diurnal species of tiger beetles and then man a blacklight in the evening for nocturnal ones. It was still daylight as I walked along the edge of rank growth bordering the upper banks when a small, reddish “cluster” on a seed head in a stand of tall grasses caught my eye. I didn’t know what it was when I saw it, but I knew it was something ‘out of place.’ My first, cursory thought was that somehow the spent anthers of the now-seeding grass had gotten caught in a tangle, but I must have still had doubts because I looked closer anyway. Just then the “cluster” moved, and I then recognized what I was dealing with—an Emerald moth (Synchlora sp.) caterpillar. Caterpillars in this genus are remarkable for their habit of adorning their bodies with bits of the plants upon which they feed. I am, however, a beetle man and thus admit to being completely unaware of their existence until last summer when Alex Wild featured one of these as a Monday Night Mystery. I wondered then, “Why haven’t I seen one of these before?”, and now I know why—because they are extremely well camouflaged!

Synchlora sp. | Mississippi Co., Missouri

Realizing what I had, all efforts to look for tiger beetles were suspended (I hadn’t seen anything after ~30 minutes of looking anyway), and I broke out the 65mm lens to get the most of this small but remarkable looking insect. I took more than 50 shots, trying different backgrounds, angling the grass stem in different positions, and hoping with each shot that I had captured the larva in full profile, completely in focus, and in the midst of that magical loop. I was sure I had that “perfect” shot when I got home and anxiously fired up the computer to get a better look at the photos. My optimism began to drop, however, as I scanned through each successive photo and continued to not encounter that one photo that would cause me to say “Yes!” Exposure? Check. Composition? Check. Lighting? Check. Focus? Er… crap! The problem was pervasive throughout the entire set, and in the end, I have only this one photo that comes anywhere close to what I had envisioned while I was taking the photos. It’s a shame, because I love everything else about this photo. The cause of the problem is the very thing that makes the larva so remarkable—its adornments. The spent anthers project off the larva in all directions, adding considerable dimensionality to the subject and surpassing the depth-of-field capabilities of my lens. If the subject was in focus the forward projecting anthers were not, and if the anthers were in focus the subject was not. If I had realized in the field what was going on, I would have not gotten in so tight and cropped as appropriate during post-processing. Live and learn!

Although 12 species of Synchlora are found in North America, only one—Synchlora aerata (Wavy-lined Emerald)—is widespread in the eastern U.S. However, a number of other species are found in the southeastern U.S., and for all intents and purposes the Mississippi Lowlands of southeastern Missouri  are the south (culturally as well as biogeographically!). As a result, a generic ID is the best that can be done for this larva.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Wasp Wednesday—Not!

In early September, the agricultural landscape in the central U.S. awakens from its monotonous cloak of summer green and turns ablaze with a hundred shades of yellow, gold, and tawny. The “fall composites” as they are commonly called, a dazzling diversity of mostly yellow-flowered herbaceous plants in the family Asteraceae, are one of the chief contributors to this explosion of color, and among them none contribute more than goldenrod (Solidago sp.). Occupying nearly every fence row, drainage ditch, and fallow field, the bright yellow fronds of tiny flowers are not only pleasing to the eyes of humans, but a smorgasbord of pollen for all manner of flower-feeding insects. Bees, flies, wasps, beetles, and moths all flock to the bounty in numbers rarely seen during the dog days of summer. Spiders, ambush bugs, mantids, and other predators take up residence amongst the flowers as well—not to feed on the flowers, but rather the abundance of flower-feeding insects upon which they will prey. It is rare to find a goldenrod plant without at least a few insects upon it.

Synanthedon decipiens (oak gall borer) on Solidago sp. | Mississippi Co., Missouri

My favorite goldenrod insects are, of course, the longhorned beetles of the genus Megacyllene, and at least here in Missouri there are none finer than Megacyllene decora (see A classic fall ‘bycid). However, I keep an eye out for other insects as well, and when I first saw this “wasp” sitting on a flower head I had to do a bit of a double take—”something” just didn’t seem quite right about it. A little lean forward was all that was needed to confirm that this was indeed no wasp, but rather a clearwing moth (order Lepidoptera, family Sesiidae)¹. To my mind, of the many insects that try to mimic wasps, none do so more effectively than members of this family. From the elongate body to the yellow abdominal banding and narrow transparent wings, everything about this moth says “wasp”—well, almost everything or I wouldn’t have done a double take to begin with.

¹ I hope Eric Eaton, author of Bug Eric and its Wasp Wednesday series, will forgive my use of his title for this post.

Apparently a male, these moths use pheromones to locate females for mating.

I actually did a fair bit of work with this group in my early years with the Department of Agriculture. Females of most (all?) species emit species-specific pheromone blends that males can detect at incredibly low volumes (only a few molecules are needed to elicit a response by the male antenna). Components of these pheromones have been synthesized, and since a number of species have economic importance in landscape and nursery settings (larvae of most species are borers of woody or perennial plants), these synthetic pheromone blends are commonly employed in traps for survey and detection (e.g., Snow et al. 1985). I conducted surveys for several years during the mid 1980’s in east-central Missouri using these traps and, thus, developed a good eye for distinguishing these moths in flight from the wasps that they so effectively mimic. In fact, I used to keep a pheromone tag on my waist bag, which resulted in male moths frequently flying up to me and “searching” for the female. I never tired of seeing the faces of nursery growers—first showing concern as they were convinced I was under attack by a wasp, and then shock as I calmly reached out and grabbed the “wasp” in mid-flight with my bare hand! (And to be perfectly honest, it took me a while before I could bring myself to start grabbing them out of the air!) I even had one nursery grower continue insisting it was a wasp and could sting even after I had caught it (“Naw, them things sting—I seen ’em!)

The moth in these photos seems to best match Synanthdedon decipiens, widely distributed east of the Rockies and inhabiting the woody galls of cynipid wasps on oaks. In Georgia adults of this species exhibit a bimodal pattern of seasonal occurrence suggestive of two generations per year (Snow et al. 1985), so this September-occurring male might represent a second Missouri generation as well.

REFERENCES:

Snow, J. W., T. D. Eichlin & J. H. Tumlinson. 1985. Seasonal captures of clearwing moths (Sesiidae) in traps baited with various formulations of 3,13-0ctadecadienyl acetate and alcohol. Journal of Agricultural Research 2(1):73–84.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Inchworm, Inchworm, Oh So Small

Soybean looper (Chrysodeixis includens) | 3rd-instar larva

Okay, I know this is not a real “inchworm” (generally restricted to caterpillars in the family Geometridae), but this young larva of a soybean looper (Chrysodeixis includens, family Noctuidae) is just too cute to not have an equally cute name. I believe it is an early 3rd instar, based on its small size (~7mm in length), lightly colored head capsule, and distinct bristles around the head and on the body—1st instars have a black head capsule, while 2nd instars have a light brown head capsule, and in both the bristles on the body are smaller and not as distinct.

This larva hatched from an egg laid on soybean by a laboratory-reared adult.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Life at 8X—Guide to lepidopteran eggs on soybean

Most of you are aware of my passion for beetles, but in reality that is just my evenings-and-weekends gig. By day, I am an agricultural entomologist conducting research on insect pests of soybean. I’m not sure how many latent soybean entomologists there may be among readers of this blog, but for this installment of “Life at 8X” I thought it would be interesting to feature eggs of several of the more important lepidopteran species that infest soybean in the U.S. Soybean is primarily a New World crop, and of the many lepidopteran species that attack soybean on these two continents, most belong to the great family Noctuidae (owlet moths). The species shown here include the most important species in North America, and in some cases South America as well.

See this post for details on photographic technique; however, note that most of the photos in this post that were shot at 8X have been cropped slightly (~10–15%) for composition (should I call this post “Life at 9X”?).


Anticarsia gemmatalis. Velvetbean caterpillar (“oruga de las leguminosas” in Argentina; “lagarta-da-soja” in Brazil) has long been the most important lepidopteran soybean pest throughout the New World. In North America its attacks are confined to the lower Mississippi River delta and southeastern Coastal Plain, but in South America nearly 100% of the soybean growing area is subject to attack. Eggs of this species are laid almost exclusively on leaf undersides throughout the canopy and are intermediate in size compared to the other species shown below (~7,000 eggs per gram). They are distinctive in their slightly flattened spherical shape and turn pinkish as they age and the developing larva takes form inside the egg.

Anticarsia gemmatalis—velvetbean caterpillar


Chrysodeixis includens (=Pseudoplusia includens). Soybean looper (“oruga medidora falsa” in Argentina; “lagarta falsa-medideira” in Brazil) was until recently primarily a North American pest with the same southern occurrence as velvetbean caterpillar. In recent years, however, it has gained importance in Brazil and northern Argentina as well, with its impact magnified by the capacity to develop resistance against most of the insecticides that have been used to control it. The egg of this species is quite small (~10,000 eggs per gram) and are are irregularly spherical with a somewhat translucent, crystalline appearance. Like velvetbean caterpillar, eggs of this species are laid almost exclusively on the leaf undersides, but the moths exhibit a clear preference for the middle or upper canopy depending upon plant growth stage.

Chrysodeixis includens (= Pseudoplusia includens)—soybean looper


Helicoverpa zea. Soybean podworm is better known in other crops as corn earworm, cotton bollworm, or tomato fruitworm (a testament to its polyphagous nature), and in South America the common names are even more diverse depending on both crop and country (“gusano bellotero,” “gusano cogollero del algodón,” “gusano elotero,” “isoca de la espiga en maíz,” or simply “bolillero” in Argentina; “lagarta-da-espiga-do-milho” or “broca-grande-do-fruto in Brazil). While it has long been considered a secondary pest of soybean in North America, recent years have seen a marked increase in its incidence across the mid-south growing areas. Unlike the above two insects, larvae of this species feed not only on foliage but also directly on pods, typically breaching the pod wall and consuming the developing seeds inside. This method of feeding not only causes direct yield impacts but also affords some protection to larvae from insecticide applications.

Also unlike the first two insects, eggs of this species can be laid anywhere on the plant—leaves (upper or lower surface), petioles, stems, pods, and even flowers. The eggs are rather large compared to the other species shown here (~3,500 eggs per gram) and assume a distinctive barrel shape when laid on the leaf. The creamy-white coloration, often with a light brown ring below the apex, is also distinctive compared to the previous two species. Eggs laid on pods tend to be attached to trichomes (hairs) rather than the pod surface, in which case they take on an almost perfectly spherical shape.

Helicoverpa zea—soybean podworm

Helicoverpa zea eggs on soybean pod


Heliothis virescens. Like the previous species, tobacco budworm has only recently gained attention as a pest of soybean. This importance, however, seems to be confined to Brazil (where it is known as “lagarta-das-maçãs”), while in North America it is usually found in combination with H. zea at minor levels. This is bad news for South American farmers; like soybean looper, tobacco budworm has developed resistance to all the insecticides that have been used against it in significant quantities. The oviposition and feeding behaviors of this species are very similar to those of H. zea, with eggs again laid on all parts of the plant and being very similar in appearance to those of H. zea except their slightly smaller (approx. 5,000 eggs per gram). In practical terms, eggs and young larvae of H. virescens and H. zea can be reliably distinguished only through species-specific immunoassay (Greenstone 1995) or feeding disruption bioassay using a diagnostic concentration of Bacillus thuringiensis ( Bailey et al. 2001).

Heliothis virescens—tobacco budworm

Heliothis virescens eggs on soybean pod.

As with H. zea, H. virescens eggs laid on pods tend to be stuck to hairs and assume a spherical shape.

This H. virescens egg has apparently died—note the shriveling and uniform black coloration.


Spodoptera frugiperda. Fall armyworm is a minor pest of soybean that rarely reaches economically damaging levels. However, its incidence in South America (where it is called “oruga militar tarde in Argentina and “lagarta-militar” in Brazil) has increased somewhat with the adoption of no-till cultivation of soybean. The species prefers grass hosts, but when these are knocked down by applications of post-emergence herbicides the larvae then move onto the soybean plants and continue feeding. Unlike any of the above species, eggs are laid in distinctive masses that are covered by abdominal setae and wing scales for protection. These eggs are also small (~8,500 eggs per gram), exhibit much finer and more numerous ridges than the above species, and are often colored orange, pink, or light green.

Spodoptera frugiperda—fall armyworm

Individual eggs inside the mass are covered by abdominal setae and wing scales.


REFERENCES:

Bailey, W. D., C. Brownie, J. S. Bacheler, F. Gould, G. G. Kennedy, C. E. Sorenson & R. M. Roe. 2001. Species diagnosis and Bacillus thuringiensis resistance monitoring of Heliothis virescens and Helicoverpa zea (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) field strains from the southern United States using feeding disruption bioassays. Journal of Economic Entomology 94 (1):76–85.

Greenstone, M. H. 1995. Bollworm or budworm? Squashblot immunoassay distinguishes eggs of Helicoverpa zea and Heliothis virescens (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). Journal of Economic Entomology 88(2):213–218.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

“Sunflower looper” – Rachiplusia nu

Rachiplusia nu ''oruga medidora'' | Santa Fe Province, Argentina

With a planted area approaching 20 million hectares, soybean has become Argentina’s most important agricultural crop.  Most of the planted area is located within the so-called “Humid Pampas” region of central Argentina (Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Santa Fe and Entre Rios Provinces), but the crop continues to expand in the northestern part of the country as well (Chaco, Tucumán and Salta Provinces).  More than any other crop in Argentina (except perhaps cotton), soybean is attacked by a tremendous diversity of insects.  The most important of these are the defoliating Lepidoptera, primarily species in the family Noctuidae.  Anticarsia gemmatalis (velvetbean caterpillar) is the most consistent and widespread defoliator, but an increasingly important species in Argentina is Rachiplusia nu (“oruga medidora del girasol,” or sunflower looper).

Eggs are laid primarily on the undersides of leaves

Rachiplusia nu belongs to the noctuid subfamily Plusiinae, the larvae of which can be recognized by having three pairs of prolegs and the “looping” manner by which they walk.  Chrysodeixis includens¹ (soybean looper), much better known because of its status as a major pest of soybean in the southeastern United States (and of growing importance in Brazil as well), also belongs to this group, and in fact the larvae of the two species are quite similar in appearance.  While R. nu is the primary plusiine species affecting soybean in Argentina, C. includens has appeared with increased frequency on soybean in Argentina in recent years, primarily in the more northern, subtropical growing regions adjacent to those areas in Brazil where it is now a major pest of the crop.

¹ Although still widely referred to in the literature as Pseudoplusia includens, the genus Pseudoplusia was synonymized under Chrysodeixis some eight years ago by Goater et al. (2003).  More recently the synonymy was accepted and formally applied to the North American fauna by Lafontaine and Schmidt (2010). 

Neonate larva on soybean

Despite their similarity of appearance, larvae of the two species can be rather conclusively distinguished by the shape of their spinneret (Angulo and Weigert 1975).  This is not a very convenient character for use in the field, however, leading to misidentifications in areas where the two species co-occur.  This is not an insignificant problem, as the two species exhibit differing susceptibilities to pesticides labeled for their control (C. includens especially having become resistant to a number of pesticides).  The result is control failures and subsequent application of even more pesticides in an effort by farmers to protect their crops.  While not as conclusive as the shape of the spinneret, in my experience R. nu larvae (at least older larvae) tend to have a darker, smoky-blue cast to the color (compared to the bright yellow-green of C. includens) and rather distinct patches of tiny black asperites on the thoracic ventors that are not apparent in C. includens.

Younger larvae consume only the lower surface between veins, resulting in ''window paning''

As the common name implies, soybean is not the only crop attacked by R. nu.  Early season infestations tend to occur in alfalfa and flax, after which the populations spread to soybean and sunflower.  The latter crop especially is heavily attacked by this insect, primarily in the drier western regions in Córdoba Province.  Dry conditions seem to favor an increase in the populations of this species, while moist conditions promote increased incidence of pathogenic fungi that are very effective at suppressing R. nu larval populations.

Older larvae consume entire tissues but still avoid veins, resulting in a ''skeletonized'' appearance

Like many defoliating lepidopterans, eggs tend to be laid on the undersides of leaves, where the larvae begin feeding after they hatch.  Young larvae consume only the lower epidermal layer of the foliage between the veins, leading to an appearance in the foliage called “window paning”.  As they larvae grow they begin consuming the entire tissue layer but still preferentially avoid vascular tissue, resulting in a skeletonized appearance to the foliage.  A single larvae can consume more than 100 cm² of soybean foliage, which translates to several trifoliates.  As a result, it doesn’t take many larvae to cause significant loss of foliage on the plant.  Soybean has the ability to compensate for loss of foliage due to increased photosynthesis in lower foliage exposed by feeding in the upper part of the plant, but losses exceeding around 15% during the later reproductive stages of plant growth are enough to significantly reduce yields (and it is during these reproductive stages of growth that R. nu infestations tend to occur).

Rachiplusia nu adult | Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

Rachiplusia nu is the most widely distributed of three South American species in the genus, occurring in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chili, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, while a fourth species, R. ou, is widely distributed throughout North and Central America (Barbut 2008).  Unlike R. nu, its North American counterpart R. ou has not gained status as a pest of soybean or other crops.

In a BitB Challenge first, nobody was able to correctly ID the larva of this species beyond the level of subfamily.  This, despite the huge Argentina hint bomb that I dropped when I posted the challenge and my well-known vocation as a soybean entomologist.  I figured the answer would be forthcoming as quickly as one could Google the search phrase “Argentina soybean Plusiinae” (which, in fact, shows the following except for the very first result “Pseudoplusia includens is the most common soybean Plusiinae in the Americas (Herzog, 1980). Rachiplusia nu in southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, and…” [emphasis mine]). Most participants guessed, predictably, soybean looper, while only a few were fooled into guessing Geometridae (the true loopers, and distinguished by having only two pairs of prolegs).  As a result, I’m not declaring a winner for ID Challenge #14, although the appropriate points will still be awarded (when I get around to assigning them, that is.  Hey, I’m working in Argentina right now—it was enough for me just to get this post out!).

REFERENCES:

Angulo, A. O. and G. T. H. Wiegert. 1975. Estados inmaduros de lepidópteros noctuidos de importance economica en Chile y claves para su determinación. Sociedad Biologico Concepción, Publicación Especial 1:1–153.

Barbut, J. 2008. Révision du genre Rachiplusia Hampson, 1913 (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae, Plusiinae). Bulletin de la Société entomologique de France113(4):445–452.

Goater, B., L. Ronkay and M. Fibiger. 2003. Noctuidae Europaeae. Vol. 10, Catocalinae, Plusiinae. Entomological Press, Sorø, 452 pp.

Lafontaine, J. D. and B. C. Schmidt. 2010. Annotated check list of the Noctuoidea (Insecta, Lepidoptera) of North America north of Mexico. ZooKeys 40: 1–239.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Brazil Bugs #16 – Royal Moth Larva

Citheronia laocoon? 1st instar larva | Campinas, Brazil

I was sure Super Crop Challenge #6 would be a win for the house, but Troy Bartlett scored an impressive points sweep by correctly deducing that the structures shown were the spines of an early instar caterpillar of “something akin to a hickory horned devil (Citheronia regalis).”  I found this caterpillar feeding on the foliage of a small tree in the Ciudad Universitaria (Distrito Barão Geraldo) area of Campinas, Brazil last January.  I must confess that I spent considerable time trying to identify it myself before I finally threw in the towel and called on the experts for help.  The spines made me think it must be some kind of nymphalid butterfly larva, although I had never seen such “fly swatter” clubs at the ends of the spines, so I sent the photo to Phillip Koenig, a local butterfly expert who has collected extensively in Ecuador.  He, too, was puzzled and forwarded the photo to Charley Eiseman, who himself didn’t know what to make of it and forwarded it on to Keith Wolfe, a lepidopterist who specializes in butterfly immatures.  After stumping his Brazilian contacts, Keith had the idea that perhaps it wasn’t a late-instar larva—as we all had assumed (this larva was a good 15–20 mm in length), but rather one in an early stadium.  A quick search of several standard websites revealed this to be the L1 or L2 larva of a species of Citheronia (Saturniidae, Ceratocampinae).  To support his ID, he provided links to larval photos of C. splendens (Arizona) and C. lobesis (Central America).  The L1 larva of both of these species bears the same “fly swatter” spines, and the latter is remarkably similar in color pattern as well.

In trying to determine what species of Citheronia occur in southeast Brazil, I came across this link with photos of a caterpillar from southern Brazil—the L1 looking nearly identical—that was eventually identified as the common Brazilian species C. laocoon.  Troy suggested C. brissotii—another good possibility as that species is found from southeastern Brazil through Uruguay to Argentina.  However, in perusing a number of online sources, it appears there are several other species of Citheronia that also occur in Brazil, so a species ID for the larva in this photo may not be possible.

Troy’s win vaults him into 3rd place in the current session overalls, but steady Tim Eisele took 2nd place with 6 pts and takes over the session lead.  Newcomer Roy rounds out the podium in 3rd place with 5 points.  Dave’s pity points are nothing to sneeze at, as they helped him retain sole possession of 2nd place in the overall standings (let that be a lesson to those who don’t play because they’re “stumped”!).  There will be at least two more challenges in the current session before a winner is crowned, so look for an opportunity to shake up the standings in the near future.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Monday Moth – Polka-dot Wasp Moth

Syntomeida epilais - polka-dot wasp moth

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Monday Moth post, so I thought I’d feature one of the prettier specimens in my very limited Lepidoptera collection.  This is Syntomeida epilais (polka-dot wasp moth), one of four species in the genus that occurs in the United States.  This particular specimen was collected by me way back in the mid-1980s (I was not quite yet the discriminating beetle collector that I am now) in Everglades National Park (yes, I had a permit).  The bright, contrasting coloration obviously screams aposematism (warning coloration), and in fact the tissues of the adult moths of this species are chock-full of several cardiac glycosides sequestered by the larva from its now preferred food plant, oleander (Nerium oleander).  Add to it their somewhat wasp-like appearance, and there should be no question to any would-be predator that these moths are a bad idea.  Wasp moths are related at the tribal level to another group of wasp-like moths called maidens which are restricted to the Old World.  I featured one of these from South Africa last year in the post, Monday Moth – Simple Maiden (Amata simplex).

If the cardiac gycosides stored in the tissues of this moth aren’t enough to cause gastric distress, trying to digest the higher taxonomic history of this group surely will.  Back in my school days, this moth belonged to the family “Ctenuchidae.”  As best I understand it, this group was later subsumed into the tiger moth family “Arctiidae” – itself later subsumed within the borg of all moth families, the Noctuidae.  In the most recent classification I’ve found, the arctiine moths have been pulled back out of the Noctuidae and combined with the former “Lymantriidae” (propelled to infamy by the gypsy moth) to form the family Erebidae (Lafontaine and Schmidt 2010).  Are you ready to purge yet? It’s still not clear to me whether this latest incarnation represents a consensus monophyletic unit, but it really doesn’t matter – whenever I see wasp moths, maidens, and especially the ctenucha moths that are so common in my area on goldenrod flowers during the fall, “ctenuchid” will still be the first name that comes to my mind.

REFERENCE:

Lafontaine, J. D. and B. C. Schmidt.  2010.  Annotated check list of the Noctuoidea (Insecta, Lepidoptera) of North America north of Mexico.  ZooKeys 40:1–239.  doi: 10.3897/zookeys.40.414

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011