Category: informational

Using iNaturalist Tutorial 1: Making Observati…

Welcome to the first part in a series of tutorials on using the world-wide citizen science website/app/paradise that is iNaturalist [link]. They have their own tutorials on using the website [link], but *coughs* they haven’t been updated in a while and the interface changed a little

I’m trying to encourage tumblr peeps to try out iNaturalist, so I created an “iNatters of tumblr” group [link] for us all to see what everybody else encounters, help each other ID things, and otherwise just have a fun time while contributing to science! Want to join us? Just create an account on iNaturalist, and either send me your username (on tumblr or on iNat!) and/or follow the group (click the button in the top right corner of the group page). I will add you to the list of identifiers, and all of your observations, past and present, will be added to the group! Check out my tagged posts about this project! [link]

Figuring out any new website or app can be confusing and frustrating, and I hope these tutorials will make it easier to start using iNaturalist. If anything I say is unclear, confusing, or doesn’t match what you see, just let me know and I will update this tutorial with a better explanation. 

These tutorials are image-heavy and kinda long, so they will be under a cut. Note: I have the iPhone version of the app, so you may see a slightly different interface on another device.

Observation Tutorial Part 1: Making Observations with the Mobile App

First Thing’s First! Let’s check out your settings!


Most of these settings are self-explanatory.
Automatic Upload
The app defaults to automatic upload, which means it will start uploading your observations as soon as you save them. If you are doing a bioblitz, or are in an area with limited cell reception, this option can slow down the app and drain your battery. If you turn off this option, you will need to push the “upload” button to post your observations so others can see them.

Suggest Species
This option is MAGICAL. It was first rolled out about a year ago, and HOLY CARP it’s pretty good! But, it does have limitations. First, it requires a good signal and can slow you down and eat up your battery. Also, it works based off a machine-learning system from observations previously uploaded and verified on iNaturalist. What this means: The identify tool can only successfully identify things that have been observed and identified by other real humans. Also, it only uses your main photo (the first one), and it can get thrown off if it was taken at a weird angle, or if there is lots of other stuff in the background (like plants, rocks, other bugs). And, very important to note: it does not take your location into consideration. There is a very heavy user-base in New Zealand, so it is fairly common for species that only occur in New Zealand to be suggested. So, use your best judgement. If you think something is a Booger Beetle, but the app suggests Snot Weevil, ignore the app. OR, you can stick to a higher classification (Beetles) and come back to it later. You can always change your mind!

iNaturalist Network
You don’t really need to worry about this too much. There are a bunch of “flavors” of iNaturalist, and which network you select is the one your data will stick to in the event that the iNaturalist Network breaks up. They are more or less regional. More information about the networks here [link]

Okay, let’s take some photos!


Wow, nice! You have two options for making observations with the mobile app. 
Option 1: Take the photo now, worry about iNat later
Option 2: Take the photo using the iNat app


I recommend choosing Option 1 if you are taking photos of things that may move, because the app has a bit of a delay, and the quality tends to not be as good. I use Option 1 almost exclusively, because it’s easier to take my photos and do bulk uploads when I’m inside and not being chased by mosquitos. Option 2 is better if your subject isn’t moving too fast, and if you are just observing a couple things (and also if you don’t want to build up a several-month-long backlog of photos on your phone…).

You can take and select multiple photos! Try to get different angles, and photograph different parts of your subject to help with IDs later.

Advanced iNatter Option
If you take photos with your phone to upload later, you have the option of annotating your photos! This is helpful if you have more than one specimen in the photo, or if your specimen is well camouflaged. You can also point out important features, like I did below. Any edits you do to your photos before you upload them can really help out people who do IDs!

Regardless of which option you choose, you will end up at your observation page!

Adding identifications to your observations


From your observation page (on the left above), you can add more photos, add an ID, write notes, and edit time and location information. More on those options later! First, let’s click “What did you see?” to get to the ID page. 

If you have “Suggest species” turned on, the app guesses what you saw. Clicking the information symbol to the right will show you more information on each species to help you decide if that ID is a good fit. Feel free to pick whatever you think is closest, and other people will agree with you OR suggest other identifications later.

If you know what you saw, or if you have a guess, go ahead and type it into the search bar. If you have autocomplete on, it will (guess what!) autocomplete what you are typing. If you have a slow connection, LOOK OUT because you might accidentally select the wrong ID due to lag.

Editing Location and Privacy

Depending on your phone’s privacy settings, your photos will automatically have a GPS stamp on them, so if you are adding photos to iNat later, you usually don’t need to worry about remembering where you took them. If you have this feature turned off for your phone, that’s fine! Or, if you have that option turned on, and your photos are GPS tagged, you can still protect your privacy while keeping the location data useful for scientists and researchers.

If you are wondering, “Why is location even important? Why should I bother?” There are a couple answers! First, there are very few species present worldwide. For the most part, in order to identify something, it is essentially to know where it was. Sometimes, you can be vague, and just stating the country is good enough detail to identify something (common for larger animals, like birds and mammals, and larger plants like trees). But other times, you need to be extremely specific. Some insects look nearly identical to each other, but there will be different species living on one side of a mountain range vs the other side, even if they are only 20 miles apart. And also, researchers who are tracking the movement of species in response to climate change can benefit from having access to accurate data–showing that a species of plant is appearing even several miles north each year is crucial to understanding how to manage environmental stewardship.

If you are out and about, and have GPS phototagging on, you don’t really need to edit your location (unless you want to!). If you have GPS tagging off, or the location data was a little off, OR you want to protect your privacy (observations at your house, for example), here’s what ya do:

Click the area on your observation page with location (I blanked those details out of my screencap). You will be taken to a map. Clicking the green arrow takes you to your current location. You can zoom in or out of the map (unfortunately, you can’t just type in an address on the mobile app, but you CAN on the website, and you CAN edit posts you made from the mobile app on the website later!). When the location you want is centered on the map, zoom in or out to set your accuracy (if you can’t remember where you were, but you KNOW you were somewhere in Austin, you would basically do what I have above in my map). 

If you don’t want to edit the location, but you don’t want the entire world to know where your photos were taken, you can change the GeoPrivacy setting (kinda cut off in the screencap, but it’s directly underneath location). You can select three options: 
Open: Everybody can see where your observations were made
Obscured: iNaturalist will create large square that contains your true location at some random point within the square. All observations with obscured coordinates will be randomly assigned to one point in that square. Only you can see those coordinates (one exception is if you join a very specific type of project, and you have opted-in to let project curators see obscured coordinates).
Private: No location information is shared. You may select this option if you want, BUT keep in mind it will be very difficult for people to help identify your observations!
For more information on GeoPrivacy, iNaturalist provides more information here [link]

Adding Observations to Projects

iNaturalist has many different kinds of projects [link]. The “iNatters of tumblr” project is a “collection” project type, which automatically adds observations meeting specific criteria (in our case, all observations made by users I have added to the project). Another type of of project, the “traditional” project type, was originally the only type of project available. It’s great for collecting some very specific observations that you can’t really search for. Two of my favorites are “Mating Behaviour” and “Animated Observations” [both are links]. The downside of these kinds of projects is somebody has to manually add each observation to the project. If you have joined one of these kinds of projects, you can link them to your observation before you save it. You can also add observations to projects any time later.

To link your observation with a project, you must have joined a project first. Afterwards, just click the button and you’re done!

Saving and Uploading

You’re almost done! Just ONE final step. Save!!! Click the big green SAVE button at the bottom, and you see your beautiful observation:

If you have Auto Uploads turned off, you need to click the upload button to start uploading. That’s it! Congratulations!

If you take your photos with a camera, or if you want to upload a BUNCH of observations at one time, you will want to make your observations on the website, rather than the mobile app. Making observations on the iNaturalist website will be the subject of Tutorial 2!

September 18, 2018

Not to be that guy…


But I feel like parts of my brain are melting at people’s ID requests so I’m totally going to be that guy. 

Recently I joined some UK ant-keeping facebook groups to get updates on mating flights and no one uses the forums anymore. Overall they’re pretty good and interesting, nice bit of community etc. but some of the ID requests…Anyone else who helpfully answers people’s questions about these things will probably know where I’m going with this (@nanonaturalist), it’s the photos.

I remember first getting into photographing bugs years ago and taking photos I thought were decent, but looking at them now? Oh dear, no, out of focus etc. So I know you need to have experience to actually tell a good photo from a bad photo but like, sometimes it feels beyond a joke? I’m not expecting a studio lit image stack but surely people can work out you need to be able to actually see the ant? 

“Hi I caught this queen earlier can anyone ID it for me?” – I took this photo as a joke but actually uuuuh this really isn’t that far off. Grainy, unfocused, apparently taken from halfway across the room for some reason. Or other old favourites like a lovingly detailed portrait of someone’s thumb next to a blurry out of focus blob that I wouldn’t even feel confident IDing as “an ant”.

None of which bothers me like the people who don’t have even the faintest clue what they’re talking about who stride in proclaiming it as this genus, species, subspecies and its mother’s maiden name for ants you can’t even ID past subgenus without a microscope (looking at you, Chthonolasius with your identical workers and nearly identical queens). Especially tiresome when you’re trying to explain how you can’t actually ID something to species from these photos and what would be needed and here’s Barry swooping in with “Oh it’s X looks just like mine”. Fuck off Barry you thought you’d found something that’s not even present in this country last week, take your shoddy advice elsewhere.

I get it, if you’ve never keyed out species with a dichotomous key you aren’t going to know what details to include and what quality of picture you need. If you’ve not spent hours staring at small insects down a microscope you won’t realise how much fine detail your photo is lacking* and you probably don’t know why that’s important. It’s not their fault and I don’t want to discourage anyone it’s just…after the fifth unusable photo of the day my brains starts to squeak.

*for the love of any and all gods that are listening, Focus. The. Camera. On. The. Subject. Not your fingers, c’mon, just focus the camera before you press capture.

Oh yes, I do know what you mean. I haven’t had this problem with tumblr peeps, but I have seen this in other various groups and databases. Bugguide [link] in particular can have some … uh… challenging photos to ID.

Most of the photos people submit for ID requests are pretty good! But sometimes…

You can’t zoom in on any of these photos, either. For what it’s worth, I let this person know I thought these could be snails, and suggested uploading to iNaturalist since bugguide doesn’t keep snail photos.

On Photographing Nature

I would like to point out, us “experts” are fallible! You think I was born taking excellent photos of very tiny things that move really fast? HA!!! Please observe my transgressions from the early days of my Bug Photography Career (aka 2016):

I helpfully identified this photo as “insects” and made no comments [link to iNat post]. Originally I had identified this as “leafhopper” but moved it back a notch when I realized it wasn’t. But… I have no idea which thing I was looking at or how I could miss the MATING TUMBLING FLOWER BEETLES?!?!!?

Please observe Transgression #2 [link to iNat post]. At the time, I was extremely proud of myself because THIS PHOTO ACTUALLY TURNED OUT!!! I did (and still do) use the “finger portrait” technique to get tiny bugs into focus. The trick is you have to hold your finger at the same exact distance from your camera as the bug, otherwise the method doesn’t work (also, your finger has to NOT SCARE OFF the bug). An alternate method to get bugs in focus is to “lock” the focus by focusing on something big enough for your camera to find in the same general area, but instead of tapping, you hold down your finger and it prevents the autofocus from ruining everything. If everything is a mess, you can turn away, hold out your finger, lock the focus, turn back to your bug, and physically move your phone closer or farther away until your bug friend is in focus. Can’t tell? ZOOM IN! Yes, your phone can zoom! Try it!

To be fair: I do not consider these to be “bad” photos because the insects in them are still identifiable (to a degree). But these photos were from before I realized you can crop photos on your phone. That was a huge game changer for me! And cropping can really help people identify your photos better. Why?


Yes, I posted this on iNat as the main photo [link]. Please forgive me.

See him now? Are you squinting hard enough? 

I do regularly still post photos of this quality (and again, I would not call this a “bad” photo). But it could be better with cropping. Here’s how I would post this photo today:

Much better!

But if you go to my iNat links to see the original observations, you will see that I have not, in fact, modified any of my older posts. It is very much possible for me to crop the original photos, upload them, and delete the older ones. Why do I leave them up there as is?

1. If you have a couple free hours with nothing to do, look through my observations from earliest to most recent [link] and make note of how the photo quality changes. You can see a significant improvement in my ability to frame, crop, and get different angles to identify things better. If I edit my old photos, I lose the ability to see how much I’ve improved

2. Beyond my own personal reasons for wanting to reminisce on ye olde days of being a baby naturalist, I want to make it clear to new iNat users (and new naturalists) that being a beginner is okay!!! Look at where I started!

3. Regardless of quality, any photo that is identifiable is a good photo. Sure, you’re not going to get rich selling licenses for grainy uncropped cellphone photos of bugs. But if your goal is to learn about bugs, document their occurrence on citizen science websites, and become a better naturalist, any photo that can identify a form of life is valuable and worth sharing.

Above, I shared only uncropped photos that were otherwise okay quality. But trust me, there are far “worse” things in my iNaturalist account. Compare photos of female Blue Dasher dragonflies I took in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Left: Female Blue Dasher in 2016 [link] Right: Female Blue Dasher in 2017 [link]
Both of these photos were taken with the exact same phone camera. What’s the difference? A year of experience taking photos with my phone (and also lucking out finding a million dragonflies sleeping in my yard every night!). But BOTH photos are identifiable to species, because you can clearly see the distinctive coloration pattern in them.

How about a couple more examples of “good enough” photos? 

Both of these photos are identifiable to species-level. Which means they are good photos. Want to guess when I took these photos? How much experience I had photographing birds when I took these? I’ll give you a clue. Here are the same bird species I photographed five months prior to the above photos with the same camera:

Left: Crested Caracara / Right: Red-tailed Hawk | April 2018

The blurry photos? I took those three days ago (September 2018). They are on iNaturalist. Sometimes the birds get away and the best evidence you have is blurry. But, if they are identifiable photos, they are good photos

Links to my iNaturalist observations for the birbs:
Blurry Caracara | Clear Caracara
Blurry Hawk | Clear Hawk

But back to @underthehedge‘s original point: To take a good photo, the subject has to be identifiable. And as mentioned, identifiability for insects and spiders can be very tricky, and sometimes impossible without a dissecting microscope and/or a DNA test. But sometimes, even getting to family or genus is good enough! In that case, the shape of the subject has to be clear. A little blur is usually okay (like my tiny grasshopper above), but for something as tiny as ants, it becomes a lot harder, and sometimes you need to accept an ID of “it’s probably an ant” and try to take a better photo next time. 

As you learn more about insects, you also learn which parts are important to identify. For some beetles, you need a close-up shot of the underside of their thorax to identify them. Didn’t get a belly-shot? Well, next time, flip one over! For some dragonflies, you need a clear shot of the spines on the legs. These are things you learn with experience!

September 18, 2018

I’ve just happened upon your fabulous tu…

I’ve just happened upon your fabulous tumblr and have an inquiry. I have been wanting to teach my child who is 9 yo more about botany. I’m a casual fan of it, and not a great teacher. I feel like I get too caught up in the details for him to follow. So, my question is, where could I start? Do you have any resources that could help me in teaching a child this age? I want to make a book of the plant life he can find in our local area with him but want to do it in a way that will be memorable.

(tbh i think the biggest mistake we make when teaching botany to kids is that we dont show them the cool parts. like when we teach kids about animals we show them lions and tigers and elephants and stuff that they may never see in their lives, and then when we get to plants we show them like. petunias and the parts of a flower and that’s it. kids are always enthralled learning about venus fly traps when they learn about them (because they’re cool as hell), but then we fall flat when talking about how they’re a plant you can stumble across in north and south carolina, and how they contribute to the ecosystem there and can be poached just like an endangered rhino or elephant could be. 

i remember when i was younger i was under the impression that there were cool and exotic plants and ecosystems somewhere in some dense forest in asia or africa, but certainly nothing strange here, where i live. i was under the impression that i was just unlucky in that i lived in a really boring place for that sort of thing. and then i got older and realized that there were plants around me i never knew existed.

for instance, i was told at a carnivorous plant conference this year that every state in the US has a native carnivorous plant. i thought, “Bullshit, not where i live!”. when i got back to school i searched through our herbarium and found a Utricularia specimen collected in 1975… the county right next to where i was born and raised (side note: Utricularia is one of those unappreciated carnivorous plants. they live in still water and waterlogged environments where they put down very, very tiny vacuum-sealed bladders; when microorganisms swim by them, they hit the hairs to trigger the traps and get sucked into the pouch, where they’re then digested. the current theory is that venus fly traps evolved from these!)

in high school, i started learning about thermogenic plants, which are plants that heat up. i was under the impression that they were all very far from me…until i found a species that lived in a protected reserve in rural iowa literally 20 minutes away from my house. it’s a remnant ice age population of about 200-400 plants, and knowing that they were there and had always been was incredible. i went and hung out with them about once every couple months in high school. 

so i think the best way to go about it would be to work backwards. native plants are awesome, but when we go to teach animals we don’t start with the native birds in our area; we have to get kids interested first, and then we use that interest to apply it to the things already around us. carnivorous plants are bomb af, and again, there’s a wide range to choose from there (fun fact, we now know that carnivory in plants evolved multiple times independently, so you can find them scattered in with completely normal non-carnivorous relatives!). 

as for resources, documentaries are awesome because they show a good broad range of strange species from across the globe (not just carnivorous plants and titan arums). i made a post with my faves here, and lot of them are on youtube. many of the botanists i met at the carnivorous plant conference this summer became enthralled with them in childhood and found themselves falling into botany because of them (there’s still a lot we don’t know about The Hungry Lads)! 

also one last thing: i have to recommend for you or him one of my fave non-academic botany books of all time, The Plant Messiah by KEW botanical horticulturalist and local lily pad nerd Carlos Magdalena. his entire job is literally rescuing native plants from the brink of extinction, and this book is basically him talking about his adventures in the field and his passion for botany (and also what he had to do to start his career in it). you may know him as the dude who saved the world’s smallest (and most adorable) lily pad species from extinction. this is him in the KEW’s lily pond, holding one of said Small Lads up for comparison with the world’s largest species: 


@mywildbackyardyt submitted:

@mywildbackyardyt submitted:

The Wheel Bug, Arilus cristatus, is one of the largest terrestrial true bugs (Hemiptera) in North America. Come with as I explore the woods searching for one of these awesome giants.

This is an excellent video. First off, wheel bugs are awesome. For a while, all I could find were the nymphs, the adults eluded me (but not for long!). The nymphs are beautiful, but lack the “wheel,” instead you have to look for a powdery-blue bug with red accents (also, they’re huge):

Second off, I love the comparison with the leaf-footed bug. The one in the video is an older Leptoglossus sp. nymph. Interestingly, the younger nymphs are very similar to Zelus spp. assassin bug nymphs:

Leaf-footed bug nymphs are on the top (they are gregarious, meaning they tend to stick in large groups), and the assassin bug nymphs are on the bottom–these are solitary, because they’ll eat each other if they stick together. 

And note, I do have photos where I’m “holding” assassin bugs, like above, but I want to emphasize that I have never picked up an assassin bug, they have always walked onto me. As long as they don’t feel threatened, they are unlikely to try biting you (I think), but be careful if you are going to handle these things! They are true bugs, closely related to the aptly named stink bugs–and like the stinks, they have a scent gland that they will emit a strongly-scented chemical from if they feel threatened. Chances are, a wheel bug will let you know if you’re getting a little too close.

Thanks for sharing your video!

September 11, 2018

Hi!! I was wondering if you would have tips fo…

Hi!! I was wondering if you would have tips for bug sighting (catching?? Bug tourism??) That you could share? Like if there was a better time of day, places to check. I live in Singapore and I've only recently decided to be more open with my love of insects thanks to blogs like yours!!

Great question! First off, Singapore is a wonderful ecosystem and you are guaranteed to find some really good stuff out there. There are three strategies I use when I’m in a new, unfamiliar place and I want to find bugs.

Tips for Finding Bugs (and other good nature stuff)

1. Slow Down and Look Around
I know this seems obvious, but don’t underestimate this one. I lived in and around Seattle for 28 years before I moved to Texas. I don’t really remember Seattle as having any bugs, and I liked them and wanted to see them. Part of the reason I got into bugs after moving to Texas was the bugs here are SO LOUD and SO LARGE that you can’t ignore them. Fairly recently, I’ve gone through all my old photos looking for things I could upload to iNaturalist. And I found stuff like this from Washington state that I had absolutely no memory of seeing:


Above: Leptura obliterata and Diurnal Firefly Genus Ellychnia

It turns out, wanting to see bugs isn’t good enough. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, like I occasionally did, but you need to be more deliberate to get satisfaction. Regardless of where you are in the world, slowing down and looking around you will help out a lot. 


Above: Successes in staring at the ground in Paris, France (left, European Fire Bug) and in the middle of nowhere at a rest stop in Texas (right, Wall Crab Spider)

2. Learn Where and When to Look
But of course, not everything will be out in the open and awake when you are wandering around doing your daily business. Sometimes, you need to go looking for things, and where and when you look will depend on your location, time of the year, and what you want to see.

In general: learn the basic niches and habitats of the types of bugs you are the most interested in. Not sure what you like the most yet? Then try looking everywhere you can. And I mean, everywhere.


Above: At least five species of insects on one piece of scat

For the most part, bugs want to remain hidden. So look on the underside of leaves, under rocks, motionless on the ground, on the side of trees, etc. But, bugs also have to eat! So look in garbage cans, gardens, perched along a pond, in/on flowers, in/under rotting wood. You will likely find some areas are better than others where you are. In Texas, one of those places is inside cactus flowers:


When you go bug hunting, look for signs a bug is nearby. Nibbles taken out of leaves, poops on the ground, leaves curled up in strange shapes. When you see things like this, it means a bug was there recently, and may still be there! As you learn more about the types of bugs you’re interested in, you will also learn what they eat and where they lay their eggs, which means you will have a much easier time finding them! I’m not too skilled in identifying plants, but I have learned specific host plants, which means I don’t need to wander around aimlessly turning over leaves when I’m looking for something. 

As you mention, time of day can also be important. I think you can generally find the same numbers of bugs regardless of the time of day in a favorable season, but they will be different kinds of bugs, and you have to use different methods to find them. At night, many of the bugs who were hiding away during the day will come out and do their thing, safely out of sight of all the birds who want to eat them. Some of these are attracted to lights, which means a productive place to look is by lights in otherwise dark areas. Check out a few of the things I found at a light in Kuchawe, Malawi:


If you are going to do some night searches, make sure you have a good headlamp. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to hold a flashlight and a camera, AND poke at a bug to get it to move.

3. Finding Bug Hot-Spots

Okay, so you know how to look for bugs, but how do you find the best places to see the best bugs? The easiest way is to just look for parks, gardens, and other natural areas. When I’m traveling, I will pull up a map of where I’m at, and I’ll look for “green” areas nearby. Usually these are nature parks, and I’ve found some of my favorite places just by doing this. Another method is to find out where other people have seen interesting things. iNaturalist is a great way to do this (and you can talk to other bug people in your area to get tips!). Here’s the map showing where over 600 people have seen over 24,000 bugs in Singapore [link]! 

Good Luck!!!

September 9, 2018

@omgsomanyships submitted:

@omgsomanyships submitted:

Hi I have these wasps (I think) that come nest in my window every summer. They seem harmless but I was wondering if you knew what they might be? Also I’m from New England region.

Congratulations, it’s Polistes fuscatus! Their common names include “Northern Paper Wasp” and “Golden Paper Wasp”
Bugguide info page here [link]. I used the key at the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification website [link] to identify these. 

I knew this was in the genus Polistes because those are the “umbrella” paper wasps. They will make paper nests, and typically these are umbrella-shaped, hanging off a stem, without the enclosed paper covering yellow jacket nests have.


Above: Polistes exclamans (Common Paper Wasp, left) and Polistes apachus (Apache Paper Wasp, right)

In your case, they found a better spot to make their nest, so they did away with the standard nest shape.

Sometimes it can be hard to get to species identifications without a microscope (or very good photos) because a lot of the features used to tell species apart can be details like wing venation or the number of hairs on a specific body part. Luckily, there aren’t too many species in New England, and the coloring in your photos ruled out all but two of them. Of these two possible species, P. bellicosus has red on the legs, which isn’t present in your photos.

P. fuscatus is otherwise notoriously difficult to identify, because the coloration can be so variable between individuals even in the same nest. Both of the ID sources I linked to at the beginning will show examples of this. Why are they all so different if they’re closely related? Because they recognize each other’s faces [link]. To my knowledge, they are the only insect capable of facial recognition. I would love to hear if I’m wrong, though!

Thanks for writing in, and sorry for making you wait almost all summer to hear what they are. I hope they had a good season!

September 3, 2018

Your flannel moths are adorable! I'd be s…

Your flannel moths are adorable! I'd be so nervous keeping the caterpillars, I've heard the sting feels similar to a broken bone! 😧 what kind of habitat you kept them in? And also did you have to clean their home out from hairs after they grow up? I'd be nervous that they'd left some behind and I'd find them on accident 👀

Thank you! I love them :3

I was very nervous when I was cleaning the tanks, but since I knew what I was dealing with I was able to take some precautions.

Here are some photos of their habitat. Basically, I used those little critter totes you can get in the lizard section of the pet store. I put branches of the leaves they ate in small bottles of water (I wrapped the top with press-and-seal to keep the caterpillars from drowning, and stuck the stems through a small hole I poked in the top). 


Usually, to feed them I would just stick a new branch in next to the old dry one. The press-and-seal kept the water from evaporating too much. When I did need to remove old branches, I made sure to (1) wear gloves (2) wear a second pair of gloves over those gloves (3) wear a third pair of rubber-lined gardening gloves over the other gloves (4) know exactly where every caterpillar was at all times (5) use scissors as tweezers to avoid even putting my hand in the tank in the first place.

When they grew to be about an inch long, I upgraded them from the extra small tank to a larger tank. In this photo you can see that I lined the bottom of the tanks with paper towels (absorbs any spilled water, makes it easy to clean out all their poops, and gives them a comfortable surface if they end up falling off their leaves). You can also see their old, smaller tank is just full of poops because I was too afraid of them to clean their tank very often. 


Once they were in a larger tank, they were much more spaced out so I was a little less afraid of touching one accidentally. After they started making cocoons, I essentially stopped wearing gloves and only touched branches that I could see were completely empty.

As for their hairs, they don’t shed like mammals! They do molt, like all caterpillars, but it’s really weird how flannel moth caterpillars do it. Just like all other caterpillars, they just walk out of their old skin. What’s different for the flannels, is their new skin is already covered in fur. Most caterpillars (and many other insects as well!) will eat their old skins (these are called exuvia) after they molt. Flannel moth caterpillars will do this too. Nothing more unsettling than watching your baby eat his old fur coat! But they don’t always eat all of it, so I would find exuvia pieces in the tank–the fur is all still connected to their old skin. When I found these, I picked them up (with my scissor-tweezers) and put them in a bottle I was storing them in for microscopy.


My last caterpillar was feeling the need for a change, and molted into a different color fur coat! You can see his exuvia with his strawberry blond fur sitting on his back.

When they made cocoons, some of their fur stuck to the outside of the structure, but the hairs aren’t actually the scary parts–it’s the stinging spines they hide under the fur you need to worry about. Yes, those come off with each molt so you still don’t want to touch their fur, but the fur hairs themselves don’t sting–they can be irritating though. I still wear gloves to handle the cocoons, but I’m not afraid around them.


Now, the io moths… those were a different story. Their hairs did get all over the place, including the stinging ones, and I stepped on them a couple times. The hairs weren’t attached to venom glands anymore, so it was just a weird little hair that kinda hurt in my foot. And I did accidentally sting myself through a glove on an io moth spine–it hurt like a fire ant sting and got fairly swollen, but the pain and swelling was gone after 30 minutes.

So don’t let something being potentially dangerous keep you from raising it, as long as you understand the risks and know how to stay safe!

Posted August 11, 2017

valarie-lynn: nanonaturalist: nanonaturalist…




@queen-of-the-wild-things submitted:

You’ve always been so helpful to me and I was wondering if you could help again.
Found this wiggly friend on my stucco wall, not blending in super well. I want to relocate him. Can you help identify him, so I can put him on the appropriate plant? Thank you!
(PS I’m from central Fl, west coast)


(Sorry about formatting, responding to submissions on the mobile app is impossible and ridiculous).

This looks like a webworm moth! They do wander around a lot, but luckily (or unluckily, depending on your perspective), they eat basically anything. I’ll reblog with the page on them from the caterpillar book.


Here is the page from the caterpillar book. The photos can be a little off, since the author, David Wagner, is in New England (he’s a prof at the University of Connecticut), and the appearance can vary with location even within species. Here’s what the caterpillars typically look like in Texas:

Also, the adults are highly variable as well. While they can be all white, I’ve only ever seen ones with gray or black spots (apparently I’m lucky, usually the markings are a paler gray).

I highly recommend this book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America. In addition to all the ID info, it also gives tips for finding, photographing, and raising caterpillars. The guide covers North America east of the Mississippi River, BUT a lot of species will occur west of the river (like Texas). I don’t know of any other guide just for caterpillars.

Here Oliver is laying on the leaf-and-dirt-covered rug (caterpillars are messy!!) modeling this excellent book. Highly recommended. Even in the west, you can see how the caterpillars of each family and genus usually look, and you can get a better idea of what you have for looking up western species.

July 28, 2018

Isn’t it a bad idea to touch caterpillars that are fuzzy like that?

Generally speaking, yes! When I lead hikes with kids, I always mention this: no touching fuzzy/hairy/spiky caterpillars! In Texas, we have several species which look nice and cuddly but are bad news. If you don’t know exactly what all the stinging caterpillars in your area look like, and how to tell the difference between them and the non-stinging ones, don’t touch!

That said, if you do know what all the stinging ones look like (there aren’t that many in the US!), it’s usually safe to touch them. And I say usually, because even non-stinging caterpillars can cause allergic reactions or otherwise irritate your skin. So this is really a matter of personal risk assessment in many cases.

To be completely honest, you are less at risk letting a mystery random fuzzy caterpillar walk onto you than you are blindly grabbing tree and bush branches without gloves. Most of the people who get horrible stings didn’t see the caterpillar—they grabbed something it was on full-force and got the spines pushed into their palm (or any other scenario where the caterpillar was not seen). The spines are on their backs for a reason! In peak stinging caterpillar season, I’ll warn people to visually check anything before grabbing, even with gloves on.

I have raised over 70 individuals of two species of notorious stinging moths, and only got stung once, and very mildly at that (accidentally brushed against an io moth babe while cleaning—with a glove on!). In some cases, I would find flannel moths dooting around eating leaves in the stick insect tanks, meaning that I had unknowingly grabbed a branch with a flannel moth caterpillar and manhandled it enough that I should have been stung, but I wasn’t. That scared me into being more cautious!

August 23, 2018

Do you have any advice about identifying a wei…

Do you have any advice about identifying a weird flying moth thing(?) that was in my house earlier? I have clear pictures, along with a video of it moving what looked like a spiked tail?? You seem like someone I can trust to give bug wisdom

You could submit photos here and I could reblog them, or you could try entomology forums. Have you googled “melonworm moth”, by any chance? Your description of a moth with a “spiked tail” sounds kind of like one:

Hey this is probably a super lame question but…

Hey this is probably a super lame question but is it true that caterpillars liquify to become butterflies in the chrysalis? Thank you!!

Not a stupid question at all! I don’t know the details off the top of my head, but my understanding is that you are correct. When the chrysalis first forms, you can see a lot of the inner structure of the caterpillar’s insides (especially when backlit! I have photos, need to dig them up, though), but this disappears pretty quickly. As the butterfly becomes more developed, you can start to see signs of the new anatomy. This is most apparent after the scales on the wings develop, and the wing colors show through the mostly transparent chrysalis.

But what happens between these two stages? Nothing comes in or goes out of the chrysalis, and the easiest way to reuse materials is to break them down into essential components! It’s easier to reknit a sweater if you unravel the old one, and it’s easier to rebuild an insect if you liquefy it (or, rather, it liquefies itself). Living organisms are largely just organized proteins, chemicals, and minerals in water.

Thanks for asking!
August 21, 2018