Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time (October 2017), I was volunteering at the intermediate school for our Junior Naturalist After-School program. We all went outside and the kids got to run around and explore the school yard around the classroom we met in. One of the kids dug around in a peppervine bush a bit, and called our attention to these things:
Look at them, aren’t they perfect???
But what are they? all eyes turn to me Uhhhh well they’re caterpillars! But what do they turn into? Uhhhh probably a moth??? They don’t really care, they’re outside running around having fun (and staring at caterpillars go nuts on this peppervine bush I mean seriously guys). Meanwhile, I pull out the iNaturalist app, it tells me it’s probably the Grapeleaf Skeletonizer moth, and I tell the kids and show them a picture of the adult moth and they LOSE THEIR MINDS because check it out:
Yes, friends, that is A MOTH. And the caterpillars look like fuzzy stripey sluggy things.
Except… Time passed. The horde of caterpillars disappears (though somehow the peppervine didn’t). Spring comes. And the last day of our program (March 2018), the side of our classroom is covered in moths. But… they’re not covered in Grapeleaf Skeletonizer moths. The moth in the photo above is a Grapeleaf Skeletonizer (Harrisina americana). Our moths looked like:
There is a closely related moth to the Grapeleaf Skeletonizer that doesn’t have the little red scarf. It’s called Harrisina coracina. That’s right, it’s one of the bugs that doesn’t even get a common name. Interesting! I went to the internet, and looked up the caterpillars of this moth to see if they were maybe lookalikes with the Grapeleaf Skeletonizer. And! There were no photos of the caterpillars anywhere. It was enough to make me think that yes, in fact, they must be lookalikes.
Blast forward a few months to the summer (July 2018). I am dealing with VINE SPHINX MOTH DRAMA. They are eating possum grape like NO TOMORROW. I have to CLIMB A LADDER INTO A TREE AT 2 AM TO GET GRAPE VINES FOR THEM TO EAT. It’s a situation. I managed to find some small vines in the back corners of my yard, and I trimmed a bit of it off. And guess who was there?
Well, hey there, strangers! I know EXACTLY who y’all are, and y’all ain’t skeletonizing those grapeleaves! And better yet, I’ve documented two hostplants, when bugguide’s best guess is “I think grape leaves?” [link]
Of course I raised them.
So precious, so sweet. “LOOK MA, I’M PUPATING!”
And in August, guess who flew out? Of course it was H. coracina.
Because I have been so stressed out/busy/all of the above, I’m just now finishing up my August uploads to iNat. So I only uploaded the adult photo in the last day or so.
In many cases, there are really only two reasons insects are studied: money (hobbies) and money (agriculture). The first reason is why you can find basically anything you could ever want to know about the life cycles of the big flashy moths and butterflies, and the second reason is why we know the basics about moths that can cause huge devastating damage to plants and crops. But oh boy there are a lot of moths out there and there just isn’t enough time and money to study them all. So there are some gaps, even for species that can have notable effects on crops (I mean, these things can destroy grapevines, don’t get me wrong).
So when I started posting the caterpillars and claiming that they were a species that has a gap in the scientific literature based on rearing the adult, one person bookmarked my iNat observation of my cutie little possum vine eating fuzzbutts after asking me how I knew the species. And when I finally posted the adult photo, this guy was very excited and needs to double check with the guy who wrote the caterpillar ID book, but essentially asked me to rear them again, going for complete life cycle (with eggs), and sending him the adults so he can confirm for 100% sure that my species ID is correct, and he’ll co-author the paper with me.
I looked him up, guy is legit [link to his California Dept of Food & Agriculture bio page]
So uh, yeah. Unemployment looming, but I have three talks, an outreach event, research for a legit entomology paper (?!), and I’m planning to start a non-profit (for reals). At least I won’t be bored?
Will post about the public talks + outreach event separately, but if you’re in Austin, TX, come to the Texas Memorial Museum on UT Campus Saturday January 26!! Free Admission for Texas Wildlife Day! Me and a bunch of nerds will have fun activities relating to wildlife!
January 2, 2019