|This little caterpillar is not afraid of my hand!|
After it had crawled off into the bushes and I lost sight of it, I ran inside to identify the beast. This can be a very tricky task, requiring your memory, photographs, the internet, field guides, or a biologist with local expertise. Google is my first starting point - not because it is the best, but because I am impatient. Lucky for me, the first (non-advertisement) link Google returned for "caterpillar identification guide Massachusetts" took me to an excellent caterpillar guide on DiscoverLife.org, where I could search for caterpillars that had certain identifiable attributes. Noting that this caterpillar was "yellow/white" in main body color and had "hair pencils" or "lashes" of hair (tight groups of longer setae that look like eyelashes), I cut down the pool of potential species to a few and by looking at pictures quickly identified the beast as a hickory tussock moth caterpillar, or Lophocampa caryae.
|The adult moth.|
Using the scientific name like a key for unlocking a wealth of knowledge, I re-searched Google (ah, so that's where "research" comes from?). The species is named after its preferred food - hickory tree leaves - and its hairy groups of setae, or "tussocks." It is also known to feed on walnut and butternut trees, as well as beech and oak. These fascinating creatures complete their life cycle in a single year! Adult moths take wing, mate, and lay eggs from May to July. The developing caterpillars are out and about from July to late October, when they start looking for a place to "coccon" overwinter and metamorphose in the spring. And perhaps statistical probability explains why I had the fortune to come across one, for this year appears to be a boom year for this species. Indeed the paradox of nature is that it is in constant fluctuation - wars waged between predators and prey means species may be rare some years or decades but common the next. What a system all the non-human species must still contend with!
For those of you that think you don't have time for nature or that you could never see such creatures that I run into, I maintain that the majority of times I see these wonders when I am least trying to find them. After all, the hickory tussock moth caterpillar wasn't a yard from my door! This does not make me special or unique - what wonders lie in front of your door? Instead, discovering the nature around you is more like playing a musical instrument, where practice makes perfect. One skill involved in this is noticing subtle movements. Generally, if some object is moving of its own free will, it might be alive. So once you've gone looking for lots of wildlife and start getting used to spotting moving creatures, those same subtle movements will catch your eye when you are not looking but are still in the right place. We all share the ancestral tradition of hunting, we have just forgotten how. Re-awakening your spotter instincts brings with it a very fulfilling sense of belonging to your wilderness, even if you only noticed a caterpillar that wouldn't make a good meal! ;)