White-marked Tussock Moth
By Young Naturalist D
My Dad found a caterpillar on a plum tree during the last days of summer (August 27th). It had a red head with black antennas. At first glance they appeared twice as long as they really were because of all the long black hairs on them. The caterpillar also had four white clumps of hair sticking up along the upper part of its back. Starting at the second hairy white clump there was a yellow stripe on either side running down its back. It also had white clumps of hair around every leg. Overall it had a light green body. Dad thought something so strange looking might not be good for his plum tree so he brought it inside and asked us four kids to figure out what it was.
White-marked Tussock Moth photo by Young Naturalist H.
We put it into a clear jar and began to observe. My sister, Young Naturalist H, tried to get a picture of it but the batteries in her camera weren’t working well and we thought we could get a picture the next day after we got new batteries but…. it made a cocoon that night! We did eventually find a picture in an old golden book on insects. You can kind-of get and idea of how strange it was as a caterpillar. (And I might add ugly!) The cocoon was surrounded by webbing that looked like a messy spider had spun. At first it was light green with black spots and was about 2.25 cm long. Over several days it faded and became a milky white with the same one black spot on every section. It was in its cocoon six days before it hatched. Even when it hatched it still looked like it was in its cocoon. Dad thought it looked like neither moth nor butterfly. He said it looked like it hadn’t completely morphed. It was 2 cm long, gray, had 6 legs and was hairy. Four days after it hatched, it started to lay eggs and then soon afterwards it died.
We did a lot of searching on the web and then in books and were finally able to identify it as a White-Marked Tussock moth. The tussock in its name comes from the thick tufts of hair on the back and down the sides of the caterpillar. We found out that this moth is related to the Gypsy moth – so dad was right; it is not necessarily an insect he is delighted to find on his plum trees! We found it interesting that the female does not have wings! Since she doesn’t have wings, she can not fly and therefore lays her eggs on or near her cocoon before dying. When the eggs hatch the young caterpillars dangle a long silk thread that they spin and are then carried around by the wind. This spreads them around to other plants and trees.
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Mon@rch’s Editor’s Note – Young Naturalist “D” and Young Naturalist “H”s family has been camping in Allegany and attending my nature walks for as long as I can remember. Although I only get to spend time with their family for one week out of the year . . . . they still are very active in multiple nature activities back in there home state of Michigan. I was very excited to see this email from their mother this afternoon asking if they could do a guest post here on Mon@rch’s Nature Blog. Great job with the post YN-D and your pictures YN-H . . . . also thanks for sharing what you learned with the world!