Lepidoptera Facts Butterfly And Moth Larva
In almost every case the young caterpillar, on quitting the ‘shell’ of the egg, finds itself standing on and surrounded by its natural food, and immediately commences to do justice to the abundant supply. It will either nibble away at the surface of the leaf, removing the soft cellular substance, so that the leaf exhibits a number of semi-transparent patches when held up to the light, or it will make straight for the edge, and, closing its horizontal jaws on either side, bite the leaf completely through, and thus remove a small piece each time.
Several naturalists have amused themselves by performing experiments and making calculations on the efficiency of the masticating and digesting powers of the caterpillar. The illustrious Reaumur, for example, proved that some of the cabbage eaters disposed of more than twice their own weight of food in twenty-four hours, during which time their weight increased one-tenth. Let us see what this would be equivalent to in human beings: A man weighing eleven stone would devour over three hundred pounds of food in a day, and at the end of that day weigh about fifteen pounds more than he did at the beginning!
So the young caterpillar eats, and rests, and grows, till, while still young, its body has become too large for the already tightened skin. It evidently feels very uncomfortable. Its appetite fails, and it remains for a time perfectly quiet in one spot, having previously spun a little carpet of silk to form a firm foothold during its temporary indisposition. Its colours have also become dingy, and anyone, not understanding the character of its growth, might easily be led to suppose that the poor creature was displaying the earlier symptoms of a serious and perhaps fatal illness.
But soon an encouraging symptom is observed. The caterpillar begins to get restless. Its front segments are turned alternately right and left, and are also made to swell out much beyond their normal size. Then in a very short time-often less than a minute from the first appearances of restlessness-the skin, which has become somewhat dry and brittle, splits along the back over the second, third and fourth segments, revealing a new and bright coat beneath. The caterpillar continues its struggles and, in addition to the previous movements, causes the swelling to move backward along the body. This, acting like a wedge, causes the rent in the old coat to extend in that direction.
The caterpillar now draws its head backward, and, with a few convulsive struggles, pulls the front segments out of their old skin, and passes its head out of the rent in the back. With its foremost segments thus rendered perfectly free, it walks straight out of the old garment, which is left still fixed by the legs to the silken carpet.
The larva, although now fresh and smart in its appearance, is exhausted by these struggles and its prolonged fast. The new skin, moreover, is very soft and tender, even to the cases of the head and legs, which are normally very hard. But a short period of rest suffices to dry its skin and sharpen its appetite, and then it eats more vigorously than ever.
We will now leave the caterpillar for a moment while we look at its cast-off clothes. They are still clinging to a stem so firmly that they can scarcely be removed without injury. The hard shell that covered the head and jaws is perfect in form, and so are the claws and cases of the legs. All the hairs or spines that happened to adorn the previous owner still retain their positions; and the whole skin, although always more or less shrivelled, is sometimes so slightly altered in form that it might be mistaken for a living caterpillar if not closely examined.
But this is not all. For, according to the accounts of some authoritative observers, the lining of the digestive organs, which is really a continuation of the outer skin, is cast off (or rather cast out) at the same time, as are also the linings of the larger breathing tubes which are presently to be described.
We have seen that some caterpillars, on quitting their egg cases (which may really be regarded as the first moult), make their first meal of the old covering. So also some of them, in their future moultings, exhibit an apparently useless economy (seeing that they are surrounded by an abundance of their natural vegetable diet) by devouring their old coats! In the face of this fact we can hardly describe them as strict vegetarians.
Having thus passed through its first hardship, the caterpillar has by no means seen the end of the troubles and dangers that beset it; for, during its existence in the larval state, it has to go through a series of three, four, five, or even six moults, all of which are periods of considerable inconvenience, and perhaps even pain, and frequently prove fatal. And it is by no means an uncommon thing to meet with the lifeless body of an unfortunate individual who, as shown by its shabby appearance and the silken carpet under its feet, has evidently fallen a victim to the dangerous process of ridding itself of an old garment.
But this is only one of the many dangers to which caterpillars are exposed. Throughout every hour of the day the sharp and hungry eyes of the numerous insect-eating birds are searching the leaves for such delicacies to satisfy the wants of themselves and their broods. The lively little lizards, too, during the sunny hours are busily engaged in searching them out among the foliage of heaths and banks.
Very formidable enemies also exist in the form of Ichneumon and other species of flies, which pierce the skins of caterpillars with their sharp ovipositors, and lay their eggs within the bodies of the unfortunate victims. As soon as the young larva are hatched from these eggs, they commence feeding on the fatty substance stored beneath the caterpillar’s skin. They carefully avoid, at first, attacking the vital organs of their host’s body, and in this way secure for themselves a more lasting supply of fresh food. When the fatty substance is nearly all gone, they eat their way into the more important structures, of course steadily growing all the time; and so, even though the body of the caterpillar is rapidly diminishing, the total bulk shows often no very appreciable decrease in size. When the larva of the flies are fully fed, they either change to the pupa within the carcase of their host, or eat their way out of its body and construct for themselves a cocoon in which to undergo the transformation.
As for the caterpillar itself, it sometimes dies before the time for its metamorphosis has arrived; but it often changes to the chrysalis before its fate is sealed. In this latter case, a number of flies, having undergone their final transformation within the chrysalis shell (there being but little else than shell remaining of the victim’s body), break forth from the remains of the carcase somewhere about the time at which the butterfly or moth should have appeared.
Caterpillars have also their nocturnal enemies and devourers, among which may be mentioned frogs, toads, newts, and insect-eating mammals.
We must now learn something of the structure of caterpillars; and then become acquainted with their habits, and the change to the chrysalis or pupa.
Take a caterpillar from your garden, preferably a full-grown one of a rather large species, that is not very densely covered with hair, and examine it carefully as we note the main points in its structure. The first point that strikes our notice is the division of its body into segments or rings, separated from each other by a more or less distinct line or slight constriction of the body.
There are thirteen of these segments, reckoning, as is usual, the head as the first.
The head is usually very hard, and often of a much darker colour than the rest of the body. It is also frequently divided into two lobes by a couple of oblique lines, between which the parts of the mouth are situated. The two powerful horizontal jaws, to which we have already referred, are very hard and sharp, and curved like a sickle, and therefore splendidly adapted for biting from the edges of leaves. The head is also provided with a pair of antenna, usually very short and inconspicuous and protected by a horny covering.
Unlike the perfect insect, the caterpillar has no large compound eyes, but twelve very small simple eyes, situated on the cheeks, very near the mouth-six on each side.
If you examine them with a magnifier, you see that each one is provided with a small and very convex lens-a lens of very short focus, such as would be used for the examination of small objects held very near to the eye. From this arrangement we should be inclined to conclude that the caterpillar can see only those objects that are close to its mouth; and this idea is strengthened if you place one in a box containing a number of leaves, one of which is that of its own food plant. It will wander about the box, apparently looking at every part of every leaf it passes, after the manner of a very short-sighted individual, and never taking a general look round. A butterfly or a moth can see a flower in the distance, for it flies unhesitatingly from one to another in the straightest and shortest path, but if you place a caterpillar in the centre of a ring composed of a leaf of its food plant and nine others from other plants, the chances are (nine to one) that it will not walk towards what it would like to have.
Again, the eyes are situated on the lower part of the cheek, directed slightly downward, and are therefore adapted for seeing what is just under its jaws as it walks along. Had we no knowledge whatever of the caterpillar’s twelve little eyes, we should probably have thought that it sought out its food by some sense other than that of vision.
Another important and interesting feature of the head is the silk-spinning apparatus, situated under cover of the lower lip. This consists of two tubular glands, corresponding to our own salivary glands, the special purpose of which is to secrete a viscid fluid that solidifies on exposure to air. The opening by which the fluid escapes is so situated that the caterpillar can easily apply it to the surface of any object over which it is walking, and then, by drawing or turning away its head, cause a silken fibre to be produced.
Some caterpillars make use of this spinning apparatus only on a few special occasions, but others, more especially some of the smaller species, seem to have it always in use, so that if at any time you suddenly start them into the air by giving a smart tap to the plant or twig on which they rest, they invariably fall slowly on the end of a growing web, the spinning of which they stop as soon as they consider they have fallen far enough. Sometimes, as you are walking through a wood, you will see hundreds, nay, thousands of little caterpillars thus suspended, swinging gently in the breeze. Not long since, after only a few minutes’ walk among the trees of Epping Forest, I found I was decorated with several dozens of these swingers with which I had come into collision-in this case consisting chiefly of the larva of the Green Tortrix Moth (Tortrix viridana).
Now let us examine the caterpillar’s limbs. Attached to each of the second, third, and fourth segments is a pair of true walking legs, corresponding with those of the perfect insect. These are covered with a hard and shining substance, and are also each provided with a hook. The fifth and sixth segments have no limbs at all, nor have the eleventh and twelfth, but some or all of the others (seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and thirteenth) are furnished with a pair of claspers which we shall presently describe.
First, as regards the number of claspers, it will be seen from what has just been said that this is not always the same. Some caterpillars possess five pairs, thus making up the total number of walking appendages to sixteen. In fact, we must regard this as the usual number. But there are at least a few hundred exceptions to the rule. Many of the Bombyces, for example, have only four pairs of claspers; and in others of the same group the fifth pair is present, but only partially developed, and quite useless for walking.
Look at the peculiar caterpillar of the Lobster Moth (fig. 23)-a creature that differs from most other caterpillars not only in its claspers, but in many other respects too. Observe its long and slender legs, its humped middle segments, and its upturned hindermost segment, of enormous size and mounted with a pair of clubbed ‘horns.’ This last segment you will observe, has no claspers.
Another allied caterpillar is that of the Iron Prominent Moth (fig. 24). This one also has humped segments, and the claspers of the thirteenth segment are imperfectly developed.
A large number of other exceptions to the general rule are to be found in the caterpillars of the Geometer Moths, one of which is here represented. These have generally only two pairs of claspers, one pair on each of the tenth and last segments, so that there is a distance equal to the combined length of six segments between the hindermost true leg and the first pair of claspers. But even among the Geometers there are variations to be observed in the number of claspers, and some of these will be pointed out in our brief descriptions of the commoner species.
These limbs which we have been calling claspers are known by several other names. Thus they are termed ‘pro-legs,’ ‘temporary legs,’ ‘false legs,’ and ‘abdominal legs;’ but if you watch a caterpillar as it walks up a stalk or along the edge of a leaf, you will certainly agree that the term ‘clasper’ is everything that could be desired. But why not call them legs, seeing that they are used in walking? The reason is that they differ in many respects from the three foremost pairs of limbs as regards structure, persistency, and function. The true legs, as we have called them, continue to exist, though concealed, in the chrysalis state, and again appear, far more perfectly developed, in the butterfly or moth, but the claspers are no more to be seen after the caterpillar has passed into the quiescent stage. We have noticed, too, that the true legs are pointed and clawed, also that they are protected by a hard and horny covering; but examine a large caterpillar, holding it between the fingers and thumb with its under side uppermost, and you will soon see that the claspers are not at all hard, but soft and fleshy; not pointed, but often terminating in a broad flat circular surface. You will also observe, as the creature struggles to escape from your grasp, and tries to get a hold on something with its claspers, that these limbs, if we may so call them, are retractile, and are sometimes completely drawn into the body. Finally, examine the broad end of a clasper with a magnifier, and you will see it surrounded by a circle of little hooks, turning in all directions. You will no longer wonder how it is that a caterpillar can hold so tenaciously to a piece of twig that it is often almost impossible to remove it without injury.
Now put your caterpillar down, so that you may observe its gait. If it happens to be one with the full complement of sixteen limbs, you see that at each stride it makes but little progress. The segments contract and relax alternately and in succession, thus sending a series of wave-like motions along the body, and urging onward the front segments while the claspers keep the hinder portion firmly fixed.
But if your caterpillar is one of the Geometers, with only two, or perhaps three, pairs of claspers, the mode of procedure is very different. The creature stretches its body out at full length, often raising its head high in the air, and swinging its long body right and left with a most furious motion, as if to hastily scan the neighbourhood. Then, having satisfied itself as to the direction of its proposed course (which, by the way, is often changed considerably at almost every stride), it holds on by the true legs and pulls its hinder quarters forward till the body forms almost a closed loop, with the fourth segment nearly touching the ninth. The claspers now become the holdfasts. The little hooks with which they are provided are firmly fixed to the surface on which it is walking; and the body being again straightened out to its utmost length, the same manœuvre is repeated. So, you see, the insect progresses by strides equal in length to about six segments of the body, and these the longest segments generally; and the rate at which the strides succeed each other, especially in some of the smaller species, is really astonishing.
We have seen the caterpillar in the act of taking its walk, and now we will give it a twig of its food plant so that we may see it feed. It walks up the twig without hesitation-for caterpillars (excepting those which feed on roots) always seem to move upward when in search of food-and soon finds itself on a leaf. Over this it walks till it reaches the edge; and, grasping the edge firmly between the claspers, so as to give perfectly free play to its legs and head, it stretches its body at full length, and takes a series of bites as it brings its head backward in a curve. When the head has thus been brought close to its fore legs, the body is again extended, and the same ground is gone over again.
If the caterpillar is a fairly large and hardy one, it will bite through the smaller veins, and perhaps even the larger ones; but the smaller species often change their position on reaching a moderately thick vein, and so devour little else than the soft cellular substance of the leaf. In any case, it is astonishing to see how rapidly the leaf disappears under the influence of the powerful jaws and marvellous digestive apparatus of the hungry grub.
Those who take a delight in watching the movements of caterpillars are sure to be interested in observing them when at rest; for at such times the various attitudes assumed are as pleasing and instructive as are their active moments. And these attitudes are all the more interesting on account of the mimicry by which the creatures often baffle their numerous enemies. We may profitably spend a little time in studying a few cases in point.
Many species, when at rest, fix themselves by means of their claspers to a small twig or leaf stalk, or on the midrib of the leaf itself. Here they remain perfectly still, with their bodies perfectly straight or with head slightly raised. I need hardly say that these generally fix themselves on the under side of the leaves and stalks, thus securing themselves against the attacks of the feathered foes above. But some birds are equal to the caterpillars in this matter; and it is really amusing to see them hopping about beneath the leaves in our gardens, every now and again slyly turning one eye upward, and smartly plucking an unwary grub from its resting place.
The precautions of the caterpillar, however, do not end merely with the selection of an under surface. You will find that the bright green species invariably settle on a leaf or a green stalk, while the darkly coloured insects often choose a twig covered with a brownish bark. Some even make for the trunk of the tree on which they feed, and here remain quite still in a vertical position, so that they look just like a ridge in the bark, the colour of which is faithfully imitated by their skin. Further, many of the caterpillars that resort to this stratagem have bodies that are notched or knotted and spotted in such a manner that the resemblance to their surroundings is so perfect as to defy any but the most experienced eye. And even this is not all, for a number of these mimics of the insect world never venture to feed by day, but take in their quantum of provisions during the dark hours, and practise their deceptions throughout the day.
Most of the Geometer caterpillars, of which we have already spoken, are well trained in the art of deception. You are out on a caterpillar hunt, and engaged in carefully turning over the twigs of the hazel or some other shrub, so that you may the more readily examine the under surfaces of the leaves. At last you lay hold of a small broken twig for this very purpose. To your astonishment it is very soft, and readily bends between your fingers. You look more closely at this peculiar piece of stick, and find, to your surprise, that you have grasped a looper caterpillar that was standing out at an angle just like a broken twig, supported by its two pairs of claspers, and coloured and knotted exactly like the little branch on which it rested.
At other times you meet with little green caterpillars of the same group, supporting themselves in exactly the same manner on a small twig, and looking just like a leaf stalk from which the blade had fallen or been devoured.
What a wonderful power is exhibited in the grasp of the claspers and the tension of the muscles, enabling the caterpillar to fix itself and retain its position for so long a time! Imagine an acrobat fixing himself by his hands on an upright pole, throwing out his body at an angle, and without any further support retaining his position motionless for several hours!
Other experiences of the larva hunter are equally interesting and, perhaps, even more tantalising. He is engaged in very cautiously turning over the leaves of a certain food plant from which he hopes to obtain the larva of a much-coveted species. Then, just as his eye catches a glimpse of the very object of his search, down falls the caterpillar, rolled up into a little ball, among the herbage below. This latter is diligently and patiently examined. But no, the anticipated prize is nowhere to be seen. It is probably a green one, and this adds to the difficulty of the patient entomologist. Then, as he carefully separates the low herbs, hoping to find the spot where the larva had fallen, the insect, rolled up into a compact little ball, only sinks deeper and deeper into the maze.
Many caterpillars avoid capture in this manner, while others seek to avoid detection by remaining perfectly motionless, even when roughly handled. They allow themselves to drop from their resting place on the slightest sign of danger, and, when the alarm is over and all is quiet again, they ascend the food plant and resume their position.
Some caterpillars not only rest, but even feed under cover, quite secure from most, if not all, of their enemies. Several of them feed on roots, and many a farmer can relate sad experiences of the havoc committed by these caterpillars on his turnips and other crops. Then there are those which feed on flowers and buds, completely burying themselves in the dense mass of food.
We must conclude this brief account of resting and hiding places and attitudes of caterpillars by a few observations on the leaf miners and leaf rollers.
The former are very small caterpillars-the larva of certain small moths-that eat burrows into leaves without doing any considerable injury to the outer epidermis, and thus prepare a safe resting place within the substance of their food.
The latter, also mostly of small size, make themselves secure by curling a leaf or a portion of a leaf into a cylinder, and holding it in position by means of a number of silken threads.
If you examine a leaf thus curled you will soon be convinced that a considerable number of the extremely delicate threads must be necessary to hold it in position; but, if you would like to know how a very small and feeble caterpillar can manage to roll up a comparatively large and rigid leaf, you must watch the little creature at its work.
You need have but little difficulty in finding a willing worker, for such caterpillars are extremely numerous. Take a few out of their self-made homes, place them on a sprig of the food plant, and you will soon have the pleasure of seeing one start its extraordinary work.
At first it spins a number of threads stretching from the edge of a leaf to about the middle of the surface. These threads are not tight by any means, and the leaf is, as yet, unchanged in position. But now the little mechanic exhibits a tact that almost seems to prove a knowledge of the principles of its art. Each thread in turn is pulled at right angles at its middle, and then fastened by means of the creature’s spinneret. Each time this is done the edge of the leaf is bent round a little; and when at last the cylinder is completed, a number of other threads are stretched across from the scroll to the flat part of the leaf to secure it firmly in its place.
Many caterpillars are solitary in their habits: that is, they are always found singly, whether walking, resting, or feeding. But a large number of species are gregarious, living in dense clusters either throughout their larval state or, perhaps, only while young. In many such cases it is difficult or even impossible to find any reason for this gregarious tendency-to discover any advantage that the insects may derive from the habit. Many species, however, are true co-operators in the defence of their communities. The caterpillars of such live in clusters, sometimes several scores in each, and all help in the spinning of a complicated mass of silk fibres, which, with the leaves and twigs they join together, form a safe home in which they can rest, feed, or change to the chrysalis state. In early summer hundreds of such caterpillar ‘nests’ are to be seen in many of our hawthorn and other hedgerows.
Before closing our general account of the caterpillar we must have a word to say about the breathing apparatus, more especially as in our future descriptions we shall frequently have to mention the colours and markings which surround the openings in its body through which the air supply is admitted.
If you examine the sides of the segments of a caterpillar, using a lens if the insect is a small one, you will observe some little round holes, often inclosed in a ring or a patch of some prominent colour. These are the spiracles or openings of a series of air tubes called trachea. These latter divide and subdivide within the body of the caterpillar, the branches of one often uniting with those of another, thus forming a really complicated arrangement of air pipes by which the supply of oxygen is distributed.
A microscopic examination of a portion of one of the trachea will show that its walls are supported by an elastic spiral of a firm substance. This arrangement serves to keep the air passages open, and secures for the caterpillar a free supply of air at times when a contraction of the segments would otherwise cause the tubes to collapse.
There are nine spiracles on each side of the caterpillar’s body, and never more than one in the side of the same segment. The head, which we have been regarding as the first segment, has no spiracles. The second segment has a pair-one on each side. There are none in the third and fourth; but all the segments, from the fifth to the twelfth inclusive, have each a pair; the last (thirteenth) segment has none.
We have already observed the general arrangement of the caterpillar’s limbs; but perhaps it may be interesting and even convenient to the reader to give here a little table that will show at a glance the disposition of both limbs and spiracles.
|First||segment-head||Two short antenna, two jaws, and twelve eyes.|
|Second||”||Legs and spiracles.|
|Seventh||”||Spiracles, and sometimes claspers.|
|Eighth||”||Spiracles, and sometimes claspers.|
|Ninth||”||Spiracles, and sometimes claspers.|
|Tenth||”||Spiracles, and generally claspers.|
|Thirteenth||”||Claspers only, and these occasionally absent.|
We must now watch the caterpillar through its later days, to see how it prepares for passing into the pupal stage, and to witness the various interesting changes that take place at this period.
When fully grown, it ceases to eat, and begins to wander about in search of a convenient spot for the coming event. Its colours fade, and the body becomes appreciably smaller, especially in length, as it ejects the whole contents of its digestive apparatus. According to some accounts, it even evacuates the lining of the intestines with their contents.
A great variety of situations are chosen by the different species at this time. Some will fix themselves on their own food plant, and there remain till they finally emerge in the perfect state, suspending themselves from a silken carpet, hiding themselves in a rolled leaf, or constructing a cocoon of some kind. A large number walk down the food plants, and undergo their changes in moss that happens to lie at the foot; or construct a cocoon on the surface of the ground, utilising for the purpose any decayed leaves, fragments of vegetable matter, or pieces of earth or small stones. Many seek a further protection than this, and burrow into the soil, where they either lie in a little oval cell that they prepare, or in a cocoon constructed by spinning together some particles of earth. Again, there are those caterpillars, chiefly of butterflies that frequent our gardens, which find their way to the nearest wall or fence, and there secure themselves in a sheltered nook. We will watch a few of these varied methods of procedure, taking as our first instance the caterpillar of the common Large White or Cabbage Butterfly.
When fully fed, this larva seeks out a sheltered spot, generally selecting the under surface of some object, or of the ledge of a wall or fence. Sometimes it will not even leave its food plant, though it generally walks some considerable distance before a suitable shelter is found. Having satisfied itself as to the site of the temporary abode, it sets to work at spinning a silken carpet. At first the threads spread over a rather wide area, and seem to be laid in a somewhat irregular and aimless manner; but after a little time its labours are concentrated on one small spot, where it spins several layers of silk fibres.
This done, it fixes the little hooks of the claspers firmly in its carpet bed, and then proceeds with a highly interesting movement. It is not satisfied with only the one mode of suspension. In fact, this alone would hardly be safe, for when it casts its skin, as it is shortly about to do, its claspers will all disappear; and although it afterwards secures itself by the ‘tail,’ it would be dangling in such a manner as to swing with every breeze-a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, especially with those that pupate late in the summer and remain in the pupal state throughout the winter storms.
Its next procedure, then, is to make a strong silk band round the middle of its body, so as to keep it close to the surface against which it rests. But how is this to be done? It bends its head round till the spinning organ can be applied to a point close beside the middle of its body. Here it fixes one end of a thread; and then, gradually twisting its body, brings its head round to the other side, still keeping it close to the same segment, and fastens the other end of the thread exactly opposite the point at which it started.
The head is now brought back to its former position, thus adding another thread to the band; and the process is repeated several times, till at last the caterpillar is satisfied with the thickness and strength of the cord formed.
Now it straightens out its body as if to rest from its labours; but the work is not yet complete. Soon it exhibits much restlessness. Its foremost segments are seen to shorten, and consequently become thicker. Then the skin splits, and the last moult of the caterpillar commences. The movements that follow are exactly similar to those we have already described in connection with one of the earlier moults: the alternate and successive contractions of all the segments gradually force back the old coat, and this is finally thrown entirely off by a somewhat vigorous wriggling of the ‘tail.’
Then, for a moment, the creature is supported only by its silken cord. But this lasts only for a moment. For, as soon as it is quite free from the old garment, it applies its tail to the densest part of the carpet it had prepared at the start, and secures its hinder extremity by means of little hooks.
But what a change has now come over the creature! It is no longer a caterpillar. Its head is no longer distinct, although we can readily make out the positions of the eyes. Its mouth and jaws have quite disappeared, and the legs and claspers are apparently gone. The three segments that bore the legs are no longer distinctly separable, though in reality they still exist. The head and thorax are peculiarly shaped; and, instead of being cylindrical, are angled and ridged; but, beneath the soft greenish skin-the new garment-we can discern the outline of a pair of small wings, and see a proboscis and a pair of long antenna. Also the six long legs of the future butterfly can be traced with care.
The abdomen is conical in form, coming to a sharp point at the end, and its segments are quite distinct.
No stranger to the metamorphoses of insects would connect the present form with that of a caterpillar; they are so very unlike. And yet the time occupied in the whole change, from the spinning of the carpet, does not occupy more than about thirty or thirty-five hours.
The apparent suddenness of this change is really surprising, but in reality the transformation is not nearly so sudden as it appears. Dissection of a caterpillar a few days before the final moult is due will show that the changes are already going on. In fact, a simple removal of the skin will prove that the organs of the future butterfly are developing. Still, in proportion to the short time occupied, the change is extremely great; and it may reasonably be inquired, Why so great a change within so short a space of time?-why is not the change continued steadily and equally through the larval existence? The reason has already been hinted at. Caterpillars are living eating machines, whose office is to remove excess of vegetable matter. Consequently they must have their jaws and bulky digestive apparatus in full development to the end. If these organs were to gradually disappear as the caterpillar reaches its non-eating stages, it would simply be starved to death. So the change from the larval to the pupal state, which we may regard as the final moult of the caterpillar, is a far greater change than any of the preceding ones, and occupies a proportionately longer time, although it is principally confined to the last few days of the caterpillar life.
A number of caterpillars, and especially those of the butterflies, suspend themselves when about to change; and the peculiarities of the modes adopted must be left for our descriptions of species in a future chapter; but we will find room here for one more interesting example, taking this time the larva of one of the commonest of the Vanessas the Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly.
The caterpillars of this insect are gregarious when young; and if ever you meet with one, you are almost sure to be able to obtain a hundred or so without much searching. But as they grow older they feed singly, yet generally without straying very far from their birthplace.
When full grown they sometimes stray to a neighbouring plant or fence to undergo the change to a chrysalis, but more commonly they are perfectly satisfied with the protection afforded by the leaves of their food plant. We will now watch one of these as we did the larva of the Large White Butterfly.
Of course the under side of the leaf is chosen. Here a silken carpet is spun as before described; but the caterpillar, instead of clinging with all its claspers, suspends itself in a vertical position by its hindermost pair only.
Here it hangs, head downwards, awaiting the coming events. The splitting and casting of the skin goes on just as in the case of the Large White, but there is this puzzle to be solved: how can the insect shuffle itself out of its old coat without falling to the ground, leaving the cast-off garments still hanging by the hooks of the claspers? This really seems a matter of impossibility, since the little hooks which alone suspend the insect are thrown off with the skin of the claspers.
The thing is managed in this way. As the skin slowly splits through the wrigglings of the apparently uncomfortable occupant, it is gradually pushed backward-that is, upward-till it is in a shrivelled condition, and the body of the insect is nearly free. But the chrysalis thus brought to light is provided with little hooks on the end of its ‘tail’ by which it can attach itself to the irregularities of the crumpled coat. Its conical abdomen is also very flexible, and it can, by bending this, seize hold of a ridge in the skin, holding it between the segments. Thus, although practically quite free from the old garb, it never falls to the ground.
There is now, however, another point to be attended to. The newly formed chrysalis desires to be entirely independent of its cast-off skin, and to suspend itself directly from the silky carpet it has prepared. To this end it works steadily for a time, alternately bending its supple abdomen from side to side, gripping the folds of the skin between the segments, pulling its body a little higher at each movement, and securing itself at each step by the little hooks at its extremity.
So it climbs, and at last it reaches the network of silk fibres, and thrusts the tip of its abdomen among them till some of the hooks have taken hold. Not satisfied with this, it turns its body round and round to get the little hooks so entangled between the silk fibres that a fall is impossible, and in so doing it frequently pushes the old skin out of its place so that it falls to the ground.
Although the caterpillars of this species do not show any great gregarious tendency when nearly full fed, yet it is not an uncommon thing to find several hanging from the under surface of one leaf, all being attached to the one common carpet at which all had worked. And when bred in confinement, a number will often spin in company in a corner of their cage. I have thus obtained a cluster of thirty-seven pupa, all hanging by the ‘tails’ to the same mass of silk, which was so small that they formed quite a compact mass of beings with their tails close together.
We have seen that the Large White Butterfly makes itself secure by a silk band round its middle, while the ‘Tortoiseshell’ is fixed only by its tail. But the extra provision for the safety of the former is not so necessary in the case of the latter, as it never spends more than two or three weeks in the pupal state. Here it is the perfect insect that braves the winter, and not the chrysalis.
There is a great variety in the means taken by the caterpillars of moths to protect themselves during their metamorphoses, but we shall have space for only a few illustrations.
A clever cocoon is spun by the larva of the Emperor Moth (Pavonia). It is pear-shaped, and composed of a brownish silk; and is so constructed that the newly emerged moth can easily walk out of the small end without breaking a fibre, while the entry of an insect enemy from without is impossible.
This is managed as follows. A number of rather stiff threads are made to project from the small end of the cocoon, and these converge as they pass outward so that the ends are all near together. The other portions of the cocoon are of compact silk, and any insect intruder that ventures to enter by what we may almost term the open end is met by a number of spikes, as it were, that play on it at every attempt. Many of these wonderful cocoons may be found during the winter months attached to the food plants of this insect.
Of the silken cocoons spun by various caterpillars some are so thin and light that the chrysalis can easily be seen through them, and others are so densely woven as to be quite opaque. A great difference is also to be observed in the adhesive power of the silk fibres. In some cases little threads of silk can be pulled off the cocoon; but some of them, that of the Oak Eggar for example, look as if they had been constructed of paper rather than of silk, because, at the time of spinning, the moist silk fibres stuck so closely together.
An extreme case of this character is to be met with in the cocoon of the Puss Moth for here the fluid from the spinneret of the caterpillar does not harden at once on exposure to air, and so the threads become thoroughly united together, thus forming a solid gluey cocoon.
When the Puss caterpillar is about to change, it descends the tree (poplar, willow, or sallow) till it is within a few feet of the ground. Then it commences gnawing away at the bark, at the same time cementing all the pieces together with the gluey substance from its spinning glands. In this way it surrounds itself with a very hard cocoon, which so closely resembles the surrounding bark in colour that detection is difficult indeed.
But how will the caterpillar proceed if it is removed from its native tree and has no bark to gnaw? That you can easily answer for yourself, or rather Puss will answer it for you. Go and search among the poplars, willows and sallows in the month of July. You may possibly come across a caterpillar that is just in the act of creeping down the bark in search of a resting place; but if not you may be successful in obtaining a few either by examining the twigs, or you may start them from their hiding places by smartly tapping the smaller branches with a strong stick.
Having secured one or more larva, take them home, and they will give some rather novel performances. If they are not fully grown, you must supply them with fresh leaves every day till they refuse to eat; and then is the time for your experiments. Shut one in a little wooden box, and you will have the pleasure of watching it construct a cocoon of chips of wood that it has bitten out with its powerful jaws, all joined together into a hard shell by means of transparent glue. Shut another Puss in a glass vessel-a tumbler, for instance-either by placing it under the inverted vessel, or by covering over the top. Perhaps it will not be superfluous to mention that, should you place it under an inverted vessel, this vessel should not stand on a polished table, for, whatever be the material, unless extremely hard, it is sure to be utilised in the manufacture of the cocoon.
Let us suppose, then, that the caterpillar is under an inverted tumbler that stands on a plate or saucer. Now it is for you to decide what material shall be used in the construction of the new home. Give Puss some fine strips of brightly coloured ribbon, and it will construct a very gaudy house by gluing them together. Or, provide it with sawdust, pieces of rag, glass beads, sand, paper, anything in fact; and the material will be ‘made up’ into a cocoon more or less ornamental according to the nature of the supply.
But what if you give it nothing with which to work, and so inclose it that nothing its jaws can pierce is within its reach? For instance, shut it in with tumbler and saucer as before, inverting the former on the latter, and give it no material whatever. What will it do now? We will watch and see.
At first it is very restless, and walks round and round the edge of the tumbler, evidently a little dissatisfied with the prospects. Then, after a little while, the events of nature transpiring in their fixed order regardless of trivial mishaps, the glutinous fluid begins to flow from the creature’s spinning glands, and it moves about in a somewhat aimless fashion, applying the transparent adhesive matter both to tumbler and saucer.
It seems now to become a little more reconciled to its unnatural surroundings; and, making the best of bad matters, keeps its body in one place, and starts the construction of a ridge or barrier all round itself. By the continued application of the creature’s spinneret this barrier is made gradually thicker and higher, till at last the overhanging sides meet and the caterpillar is inclosed in its self-constructed prison. But the walls of this prison are so transparent that every movement can be watched; and, after the insect has spent a few days in completing the cocoon, we can see it cast off its old skin, and appear in the new garb of a fine greenish chrysalis.
Its soft green skin soon hardens and turns to a rich dark brown colour, and it settles down for a long rest lasting till the following May or June.
When the whole operation of building is completed, lift up the tumbler, and up will come the saucer too. The two are firmly glued together by the substance secreted; and the power of this as a cementing material will be well illustrated if you endeavour by mere pulling force to separate the two articles.
The Puss is not the only caterpillar that works up a foreign material with the contents of the spinning organs. There are several others, in fact, that use for this purpose fragments of wood or other parts of the food plants; and a still larger number bind together leaves, fresh or dead, or particles of earth or other matter. Several such cocoons will be described in our accounts of individual species in another chapter. We shall now devote a little space to a few general remarks on the chrysalides and the final metamorphosis of butterflies and moths.