“Cultural mimicry”: a caterpillar that decorates itself with flowers

April 5, 2012 • 10:38 am

Alert reader Michael called my attention to a post on fauna that highlighted a moth with a cryptic caterpillar.  The moth is the wavy emerald moth (Synchlora aerata), and the adult looks like this:

(photo from Bug Guide)

The interesting thing about this beast is that the caterpillar practices what I call “cultural mimicry”: it bedecks itself with plant material from its surroundings to hide itself from predators.  Now undoubtedly this behavior is genetically hard-wired in the caterpillar; I call it “cultural mimicry” simply because the caterpillar takes things from its environment to hide itself.  This is equivalent to what an octopus does: changing its color to match its temporary surroundings; but it’s probably easier to evolve “bedecking” behavior than the complex system of chromatophores and environmental assessment required in the octopuses.  The genes coding for this behavior can simply be those coding for the behavior: “occasionally cover yourself with plant material plucked from around you”.

As fauna notes:

The Caterpillar of the Wavy Emerald Moth (Synchlora aerata), family Geometridae, a species found throughout much of North America. The larvae feed on many plants in the family Asteraceae (like Liatris spp. and Rudbeckia spp.) as well as a variety of other flowering plants. They are known to pluck the petals from the flowers of their host plants and affix them to their backs using silk. Once the petals begin to wilt and discolor, the caterpillar discards the old petals and picks new petals, which camouflage the animal.

Here’s one on a Liatrus:

From Bug Guide (link above)

The caterpillar on a prairie coneflower, having taken part of the central disc to cover itself (this photo and following one by Jim McCormac from Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, used with permission):

and on wingstem, (Verbesina alternifolia):

And one on Achillea millefolium, from Friends’ Central School of Lepidoptera Research (I’ve added the circle to highlight the larva):


If you don’t like my neologism of “cultural mimicry,” how about “The Chatterley Phenomenon”?  As literate readers will recall, in one of the salacious part of Lady Chatterley’s Lover Mellors the gamekeeper bedecks Lady Chatterley’s nether locks with campions and forget-me-nots (link here).

32 thoughts on ““Cultural mimicry”: a caterpillar that decorates itself with flowers

  1. And, on the part of the caterpillars, without resort to sophisticated theology or philosophy, either!

  2. Presumably then you would say what a hermit crab or a caddisfly larvae does is also “cultural mimicry”?

    1. So could the bower of a bower bird be cultutal mimicry? No that would be more like sexual selection – a “plumage mimicry” by a dull bird that wishes to attract a mate – ?

  3. Such an amazing thing, so amazing. I hope you all know this is the magnificent hand of god at work, right? Only god in his infinite wisdom could create such an amazingly perfect creature. I am joking of course 🙂

  4. you know, i don’t recall there ever being such cool stories in any of the world’s religions…, evar!

  5. This is definitely going into my lecture on Monday (just to let Jerry know how much I appreciate his science posts!).

    1. This was the second part of my post, the first part of which went missing.

      I love most the biology and zoology posts which teach me something new and utterly interesting each day.

    1. Exactly.

      “Cultural” is a terrible suggestion for terminology here! Magpie song is a cultural phenomena, in that it appears that the popular songs in any particular region may either be spread to birds in neighbouring regions or fade out of fashion. Culture is also the thing typically associated with the the “great leap forward” in hominid evolution.

      Tool use in this caterpillar would only be cultural if the actions of the caterpillar were primarily mimicing the actions of nearby caterpillars of the same species, not simply mimicing the local environment in general.

      If “tool use” isn’t good enough and you need a more Dawkinsy terminology than for crying out loud call it the “extended pheontype”. Sheesh.

      1. Oh for crying out loud, say something substantive. It was just a lighthearted title.

        Sheesh back at you.

        1. Having thought about this, I wondered if it might be linked to cocoon spinning? It is as if at some stage the caterpillar had begun the cocoon but not properly? Or maybe it is linked to the way some caterpillars can suspend themselves from leaves with silk. In fact, does the silk spinning happen in a similar way to that is spiders? Did silk spinning evolve in the common ancestor of spiders and butterflies? So many questions!

          Ah – found an article for those interested-
          “The ability to produce silk proteins has evolved multiple times in the arthropods, and silk secreting glands have evolved via two different pathways. The comparative data and phylogenetic analyses in this review suggest that the silk-secreting systems of spiders and insects are homologous and linked to the crural gland (origin of systemic pathway to silk production) and cuticular secretions (origin of surficial pathway to silk production) of an onychophoran-like ancestor.”
          http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.ento.42.1.231

  6. Botanical mimicry? Environmental mimicry? No matter – it’s beautiful and clever.

    Had to lol at the timing of this post: Reince Priebus just compared the Republican War on Women to a war on caterpillars! Priebus is the head of the Republican Nat’l Committee (explanation for European readers). If you take the vowels out of his name, you get RNC PR BS. So true.

  7. “but it’s probably easier to evolve “bedecking” behavior than the complex system of chromatophores and environmental assessment required in the octopuses.”

    I wonder if that’s true. Are there any other caterpillars that do this? The sort of body-to-background matching shown by the octopus, is also carried off my Anolis, some fish, tree frogs, and perhaps some other animals. Crab spiders maybe? It could be learning to bedeck is evolutionarily more difficult than we’d think at first.

    Do bagworms and tent caterpillars count as bedecking? Bagworms seem pretty close – and in some respects more elaborate.

    1. Convergently, chrysopid larvae do this. They have spikes on their back, and they collect little pieces of fluff to put up there so they can blend into a herd of woolly aphids, fooling their ant minders and chowing down.

      (Hi Jerry, it’s Cassidy from Vandy — commenting on science posts as encouraged!)

  8. Here’s another camouflaged critter to add to your list — our best guess is possibly Lacewing Larva based on web research, but it’s so small to identify definitively . Anyone else have ideas?

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