Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Conjuring Nature’s Ghosts

Conjuring Nature’s Ghosts

In my last post, I pondered what survival strategies  the hickory horned devil caterpillar could be using in the middle stages of its larval life. On the one hand, they are not huge and threatening yet, and clearly not toxic to predators (no toxic foodplant, no stinging spines). They also are an inconvenient color (brown) among the green leaves they feed on during the day. This should be a recipe for disaster…

But they do have these freaky looking horns – harmless spines that are kind of like antlers. These can’t be easy to handle when you’re a caterpillar crawling around a tree… which means there must be some advantage to having them.

Looking at them a bit more, I remembered something from my own past experience. I actually had seen a hickory horned devil just once before raising them. Seven years ago, I was new to Charlotte, and out walking my dog in my neighborhood.  Watching the dog sniff things, I noticed some large caterpillar droppings on the pavement. I looked up, and there, just above my head, was a fifth instar hickory horned devil clinging to some sweet gum leaves. I jumped back, which, for me, was an odd reaction to spotting a spectacular caterpillar. As you’ve probably figured out from reading this blog, I think caterpillars are cool and I’m not at all frightened of them.

But I am, inexplicably, frightened of spiders (I always have been) and there was something spiderlike about this caterpillar. My spider fear is literally instinctual (I say it’s “hard-wired”) – I generally have no fear of other bugs, even ones that bite. This is actually a common human fear (psychologists call it “arachnophobia”) and I’ve read scientists who theorize that many of us come with it built into our brains because, in the distant past, our ancestors lived in places where spiders were frequently dangerous, so evolution has favored a built-in fear. I believe this, because it is definitely something primal in my brain, like a fear of barking dogs or of snakes.

So, look again at the photo of the fourth instar caterpillar above and look at these orb-weaving spider photos:

Notice the similarities between the spiders’ conspicuous legs and the caterpillar’s spines? There are eight large spines, and even in the fourth instar, they look distinctively like these native, long-legged spiders. Yuck.

And I can tell you (with an inner quiver) that we have a lot of these spiders in Charlotte, hanging their webs from tree branches. In August, about the time the hickory horned devil caterpillars reach their fourth and fifth instars, orb weavers also mature and come down out of the treetops where they have been growing in obscurity and hang their webs out in the open. At this time the hickory horned devils are becoming so large that they too become conspicuous.

Why would a caterpillar mimic a spider? Spiders bite, but these spiders are not dangerously venomous like, say, the black widow spider… one wouldn’t expect birds to be afraid of them because of that. Of course, they are dangerous to other insects, particularly to flying insects…

So here may be our answer – you may remember that I mentioned in earlier posts that parasitic wasps are one of the biggest dangers that giant silk moth caterpillars face, destroying large percentages of every brood. A big spider is a dangerous predator to a little wasp. The hickory horned devil’s spider mimicry may frighten away the parasites.

But, thinking about it, there still may be an effect here on bird predators as well. I’ve always found it puzzling that big orb weaving spiders (like those whose photos you see above) are so conspicuous – large, brightly colored, hanging in the middle of the web with no cover, where a flying bird could easily pluck them.  Yet birds don’t. I did a search of the literature on bird predation on orb weavers and found that biologists find that bird predation appears to be uncommon. In nature, bright coloration is sometimes a sign that an insect is toxic and not good to eat. Yet again, there is no mention of this in the literature – surely someone has looked into these big arachnids  being bad tasting… They are not poisonous in bite or taste, yet they advertise their presence… hmmm.

So let me propose an alternative –perhaps birds leave orb weavers alone because they are hard-wired to be instinctively frightened of large spiders just like I am, though there is no longer a real threat in these particular bugs.  In the tropics there are large orb weavers that are more venomous and sometimes prey on small birds. In other words, evolutionary history has given large spiders a fearsome reputation, and, though they may not still deserve the fear, they are still using it for protection. And so does the hickory horned devil… Deep instinctive fear is a force and it has echoes.

See -- totally harmless!

History has meaning to humans because we learn lessons from it.  In the battle for survival that we call nature, some lessons have value for other species as well, and they too find ways to preserve the history.

Anyway, it’s a hypothesis.


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  2. Here is another idea. I encountered a fourth instar (or thereabouts) hickory horned devil yesterday, and was struck by its defensive posture of displaying those black spots and splaying out its large spines. It was a distinctive posture and reminded me of another caterpillar - the saddleback slug caterpillar. These caterpillars sting like the dickens and I always seem to brush against one in the late Summer. Could the hickory horned devil be a Batesian mimic of those caterpillars?