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Wild About Utah: Malacomosa Dance

Shannon Rhodes

My father’s first caterpillar encounter has always been a bedtime favorite. The story goes that a plump fuzzy one was crawling on his picnic blanket one afternoon. I would imagine him watching its five pairs of prolegs innocently undulating along. Then, Dad ate it, hairy bristles and all. My first encounter was almost as tasty but longer-lasting because it came from the pages of Eric Carle’s picture book classic, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” A recent New York Times article reporting the author’s passing reveals that Carle’s interest in crickets, fireflies, and other insects was sparked as a child by peeking under bark or stones walking in the wild with his father.

 

There’s nothing like a caterpillar, green or woolly, slinking along in the dirt or hanging by a thread from overhead branches, to distract a group of young outdoor learners. I resist the urge to caution them that there are poisonous caterpillars in the world, and we play. Yet, how many times have I encountered a silky mass in the limbs of a chokecherry, stopped and watched the caterpillars wiggle and twitch, and wished that I knew more about them? The magic for me of being out in the forest meadows this time of year is coming home with more questions than answers. So, becoming a novice lepidopterist, I focused this week on learning about caterpillars, butterflies, and moths. The frenzied dance of this caterpillar, what I think is known by the lyrical name Malacomosa, is not to draw me in for a closer look; the tent caterpillar senses a predator is near and gets the whole gang going. Soon these gorging wigglers will be settling into silky cocoons and emerging as moths. According to Eric Carle’s website, he intentionally had his butterfly come from a cocoon rather than a scientifically-accurate chyrsalis because it sounds more poetic, and my budding readers appreciate being able to more easily stretch and blend cocoon sounds anyway. We do use the word caterpillar, though, for both moth and butterfly larvae, but that is where many of the similarities end. 

Butterflies get noticed because they flutter during the day, while moths are typically more active by night. In fact, when I am outside I turn to my Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies because I never thought to purchase a book on identifying moths. The first thing it says to do is look at the antenna. A butterfly antenna has a club tip, and often a moth has thick and feathery antennae to help it pick up scents flying around at night. Butterflies have names like swallowtail, fritillary, metalmark, and checkerspot, and moths just rhyme with sloths. Compared to butterflies, moths are generally smaller and drab in color. Drab? I met a moth resting on a twig once that was anything but drab. Its chunky abdomen was striped black and the most vibrant tangerine orange imaginable, and I was mesmerized. Moths should get more love, especially when you know that there are so many more kinds of moths than butterflies to enjoy. Consider getting out to notice the wonder of moths with other citizen scientists for National Moth Week 2021 this July 17-25.