A little while ago Dan brought a caterpillar up to my study where I was working at my computer. It was a big guy, the size of my thumb, fuzzy black with bright red bands between the body segments. It was a Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia), perhaps my favourite caterpillar species. The first time I encountered this species was at the lake house a few years ago. I got the adults to my moth light, first, and later found a caterpillar in our yard. For whatever reason the species was high on my must-see list, so I was pretty stoked when I found the first one.
When we moved I was a little disappointed to be leaving them behind. The lake house was in a unique area where the habitat has many Carolinian characteristics and a number of typically more southern species are present, but our new house, about 35 km north, was outside of that pocket. We don’t have Cerulean Warblers or Black Rat Snakes here, no Yellow-throated Vireos or Five-lined Skinks. Or Giant Leopard Moths, I thought.
But then, a couple months after we’d moved, Dan brought me a fuzzy black caterpillar with red bands. I was surprised and delighted, but also puzzled. At the time I was just getting started on the range maps for the moth field guide. To draw them I’d comb the printed and online data I had available for each species and compile the data points into an understanding of the ecoregions each moth was associated with. All of the data I had indicated that Giant Leopard Moth was a species of Carolinian forests and those southward. In Ontario, the Carolinian region is restricted to the southwest, with some species also present in the Kingston region (the area of our lake house) at the east end of Lake Ontario. Our new house is most definitely not in the Carolinian zone; it straddles the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes and Southern Shield ecoregions, with a little bit of both habitats. So what was the Giant Leopard Moth doing all the way up here?
I still don’t have an answer to that. But I’m happy they’re here.
When Dan brought it to me, the caterpillar was curled into itself in the typical defensive position of most tiger moth (fuzzy) caterpillars. The spines can irritate soft skin and mucus membranes, so the posture is a defense mechanism, dissuading potential predators from picking them up. Wanting to get photos, I let the caterpillar sit on my desk while I continued working, and after about five minutes it decided the threat had passed and uncurled itself. It crawled up on my hand when I placed it in its path, and I grabbed my camera to head outside.
And then the caterpillar did a funny thing: it paused in its crawling and started pinching my skin with its mandibles as if I were a leaf it wanted to chew a piece off of. Though great for ripping through leaves, the little mandibles weren’t large or strong enough to do anything; it felt as though someone was trying to lightly pinch my skin with a pair of tweezers. It tried briefly at one spot then crawled to another and tried there… I’m not sure what it was trying to accomplish. Was it really trying to feed? Or was it trying to persuade me to put it down? I didn’t keep it long, in any case. I took a few photos, then let it go at the base of a tree. It was probably on its way to find a secure nook to curl up for the winter; it’ll awake in the spring, finish feeding and pupate, and then emerge as an adult in June.