Archive | July 17, 2012

Devil’s got a pretty face

A portrait of a limacodid caterpillar from Cambodia [Canon 1D MkII, Canon MP-E65mm macro, Canon MT-24EX twin light + Canon 580EX speedlight]

Many things have bitten, pinched, stung, or jabbed me over the years, but the absolute champions in delivering the most memorable, painful experience are pretty little insects known as the slug caterpillars. They are larvae of equally handsome moths, members of the family Limacodidae.

The body of most limacodid caterpillars is covered with long, brittle spines, which break off easily and lodge into the skin of anybody foolish or unlucky enough to get in contact with them. Each spine is connected to a small venom gland and is filled with a mix of compounds, among them histamines and formic acid. These toxins tap right into our nociceptors (pain receptors), and produce immediate sharp pain, followed by swelling or rash. Not surprisingly, these insects have few natural enemies, and those that attack them do so by being able to hit them between the spines, and thus avoid being stung.

Many species of limacodids advertise their unpleasant properties with beautiful, striking colors, employing the principle that is known to every bird and lizard, but one that we humans often forget: if it’s pretty, it’s gonna hurt you. But I knew that when I was photographing a cluster of threateningly black and yellow slug caterpillars in a rainforest of Suriname, and was very careful not to brush against them. It all went very well, that is until I got a little too close and the liana on which they were sitting snapped back, and all of them smacked against the palm of my hand. My screams were apparently heard half a mile away, and I had no use of my arm for the next 24 hours.

Adult limacodid moths lack any formidable defenses, and instead rely on crypsis, blending into their surroundings. Some, like Costa Rican Perola producta, are difficult to identify at first sight as moths even by seasoned entomologists.

Some limacodid caterpillars, like these Acharia sp. from Suriname, cluster together to enhance their warning message [Canon 7D, Sigma 15mm EX DG Diagonal Fisheye, Canon MT-24EX twin light]

Adult limacodid moth (Perola producta) from Costa Rica) [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm macro, two Canon 580EX speedlights]