Google The Unplanned Homeschooler: What kind of caterpillar is that?

Friday, September 11, 2015

What kind of caterpillar is that?

Tonight, just before the sun went down, my younger daughter made a fantastic find in our back yard. She spotted a large caterpillar on a vine that was wrapped in and around the hibiscus that stands at the corner of the house. 


Thankfully, I hadn't been very good about weeding our flower beds this year, because if I had, that vine would have been removed early in the summer, and the monarch butterfly that laid her eggs its leaves would have had to search for someplace else to reproduce.

If you look closely at the leaf my daughters brought inside the house, you'll notice that not only was there a large monarch butterfly caterpillar, there was a tiny baby caterpillar as well!



The girls were so excited to discover that they'd found monarch caterpillars, we decided to see if we could gather some more leaves and let the caterpillars grow safely inside the terrarium we'd used earlier this summer to keep Jackie Chan, the ninja-like tree frog we'd raised from a tadpole. We had released Jackie Chan in a tree outdoors a few weeks after he completed his metamorphosis, so the terrarium was ready for a new inhabitant.

We found more of the same type of leaves, from a vine in the milkweed family, and on them we found another monarch caterpillar and a whole bunch more caterpillars we couldn't identify.

"What kind of caterpillar is that?" asked my daughters? "Will they hurt us?"



I didn't know, but the fuzzy creatures in striking black and orange, with funny white tufts sticking out here and there certainly looked alarming to me. "Don't touch," I answered. "Let's look them up."

Using the same research skills we practiced when we identified the strange fungus growing on our walnut tree this spring, we looked for information online that would help us identify the unknown caterpillar in the back yard.

We found a caterpillar identification tool that let us check distinguishing characteristics to help identify our species, and discovered in just a few clicks that the caterpillar sharing the vine with our monarchs was none other than the milkweed tussock moth, which is commonly found eating the same vegetation as monarchs.

We left these caterpillars alone, and took the other monarch inside, along with several fresh leaves, so they would have plenty to eat. Then we set about researching monarch butterflies, how to raise them, and how they live in the wild.

We can't wait to see our caterpillars change and grow into beautiful monarch butterflies, and release them to help maintain their population. And you can bet we won't be removing their vine of choice next summer. In fact, we might even give it a little trellis beside the hibiscus, so the butterflies will have a place to lay their eggs next year.