Thursday, September 3, 2015

Busy little caterpillar, eat, eat, eat...

As a prequel to the previous post of the monarch chrysalis and the butterfly's first flight, I thought it would be nice to look closely at a monarch larva. I was able to use my macro lens to get a closeup of a monarch caterpillar (5th instar) chomping its way through a milkweed leaf. It gives you a good idea of how fast a larva can devour a leaf, and just how much it eats (practically nonstop) to be able to grow so quickly and move through 5 instars...

When the larva is ready to molt, it becomes very still and latches itself to a leaf with silk it produces from a spinneret located on its lower lip. The head capsule is the first to molt, and the cuticle (outer skin) then splits down the back. Below you can see the caterpillar just after it escaped from its cuticle (the grey mass behind it). It has now moved into its fifth instar. You can tell which instar a monarch larva is in by the size and shape of its tentacles. To learn more about monarch larva and instars, click here for a pdf version of "A Field Guide to Monarch Caterpillars (Danaus plexippus)," by Karen Oberhauser and Krista Kuda, or here for the monarch life cycle on the University of Minnesota's website. 

Our monarch caterpillar has just molted into its 5th instar. You can see the thin, crumbled cuticle behind it. 

In the following video, you can see the very end of the caterpillar shedding its skin. The quality isn't great, because I took it with a cell phone instead of my camera, but you get the idea... 

Monarch caterpillar shedding its cuticle (outer layer of skin) from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.

Where is its head?
At first it's a little hard to tell the front end from the back end of a monarch caterpillar. Both ends have black fleshy tentacles that resemble antennae, but when you look a little closer, it's easy to tell the difference. First look at the tentacles. The front pair are much longer than the back pair. The front tentacles function as sense organs similar to antennae, but the back pair are thought to be defensive to confuse predators on which end is the head. Second, look at the legs. Three pairs of jointed "true legs" are in the front. Five pairs of "false legs" (prolegs) are attached to the abdomen all the way to its rear. 

The monarch caterpillar's larger tentacles are near its head. Three pairs of jointed true legs are on the thorax near the head as well. In the photo above, the head is on the right (you can't see the third set of true legs).

What's the difference between true legs and prolegs?
Caterpillars have three pairs of true legs attached to the thorax. These legs are segmented and often have a claw on the end. They help the caterpillar hold its food. If you look closely in the photo below, you can see the tiny claws at the tips of the true legs on the monarch caterpillar. True legs transform into the legs of the adult insect during metamorphosis. Caterpillars also have prolegs attached to the abdominal segments, but the number of pairs varies among species (monarch caterpillars always have five pairs). Prolegs are stumpy, cylindrical, and unsegmented. They also have microscopic hooks at their tips that work like suction cups to help the caterpillar cling to stems and leaves. The prolegs dissolve during metamorphosis.

In this close-up you can see why monarch tentacles are always described as "fleshy." They are not segmented like an adult insect's antennae, they are fleshy. You can also see a close-up of the three segmented true legs on the thorax.

Cuteness! A monarch caterpillar was underneath the leaf munching away, then another crawled over the top and started to eat as well. When the two "met in the middle," they touched heads, looking a little smoochy-smoochy. The caterpillar underneath shook its head and moved to the other side of the midrib of the leaf. No time for that...must eat more milkweed leaves!


Midmarsh John said...

Brilliant pair of posts on the Monarch, Kelly. Superb photos, description and videos. Worthy of any technical nature handbook. Must have taken hours of observation.

Rick Forrestal said...

So interesting. Thanks for sharing.

(I've been seeing Monarchs in the garden lately.
Hopefully, a good sign.)

Sue said...

What a great post, Kelly. Very interesting. At least now I know which end to talk to--ha ha!

Janice K said...

This is so fun to see. Thank you!

Kim at said...

Kelly, thanks for taking the time to document this process in such detail. Having tried to do this myself, I know just how difficult it can be to get good photos and videos of the entire metamorphosis! I love the little bit about two caterpillars coming face to face on the leaf. Very cute.

Montanagirl said...

Very interesting Kelly! Lovely photos too!!

Kelly said...

@John - Thank you very much, John! :-)

@Rick - Rick and I went hiking today at Ft. Ancient and saw over 30 in one field. It was a monarch afternoon!

@Sue - true! :-)

@Janice - Thank you! :-)

@Kim - Haha...yes, it was so cute. I made me chuckle. I wondered what would happen because I saw it was about to happen. :-)
Thank you!

@Mona - Thanks, Mona!

Elaine said...

Wonderful photos!