|Liberace* working the keys|
*Identified as an incarnation of the late performer by Medium Nancy Ruder
One evening last year in late July, I noticed a very exotic looking moth clinging to the outside of the screen door to our living room. Even in the dim light, it looked striking, in contrasting black and white. I called it ‘Harlequin Moth’.
By the next morning it had disappeared and I never saw another one like it. Earlier this year, after we had returned to Costa Rica, I checked around online a little and found out that a spectacular moth, similar to my harlequin, can be found in several websites. It’s a Hypercompe scribonia (Stoll, 1790) a Giant Leopard Moth. So I turning my harlequin into a giant leopard, why not.
Except … my little harlequin wasn’t a giant (as you can clearly see, it’s tiny compared to El Bigote Grande), the black and iridescent blue leopard spots were empty circles, the hind wings were partially translucent, the required blue body markings were mostly orange …. I really should’ve known better, I should’ve smelt a cat. A biologist shouldn’t jump to conclusions quite this readily, and solely based on a few fuzzy pictures. Especially, if her living environment holds, oh, let’s say, eight thousand species, from which to choose … Yet, identifications are rarely as simple or as clear-cut as you might think. Biologists who work specifically with neotropics within the order Lepidoptera will of course be able to identify at a glance, where in the cladogram my harlequin should reside. For outsiders it’s practically impossible. Not only owing to the huge number of species, but also, because there are innumerable variation within any given species. Geography, gender, age, polymorphism or life cycle stage are all factors influencing a critter’s appearance and that doesn’t even take spontaneous mutations into account – just kidding!
I sometimes spend hours googling my way through the animal kingdom, which may result in a tentative identification, occasionally supported through fragmentary information, I still remember from my “Bestimmungsübungen” (classes in taxonomy), but usually I’m clueless. Right now I’m completely in the dark about a caterpillar I found yesterday, moving along at a good clip right by the pool. All I’m certain about, is the danger of it’s urticating bristles for our dog’s noses. These cute ‘hairs’ can sting fiercely, some are even dangerous for humans, since they can release hemolytic venom, when broken off.
After looking through countless images of hairy caterpillars, I narrowed it down to Saturniidae. Possibly, this pink and neon green creature could be a member of the Hemileucinae subfamily, which I know quite well from Texas (see below), but I’m wildly guessing here.
Not too long ago, I sent a picture of another caterpillar, which completely stomp me, to an eminent member of the scientific community. Dr. Daniel Janzen has worked tirelessly for conservation and the preservation of biodiversity for decades. He is the founding father and driving force behind the ACG, ‘Area de Conservación Guanacaste’, a CR National Park and research station extraordinaire. He and his wife, Dr. Winnie Hallwachs, are also faculty members at the University of Pennsylvenia and work and teach all over the globe. I emailed him a picture of my crazy pink caterpillar, and low and behold, I got an answer within hours. Can you believe it? Naturally, my own guess had not even been in the ballpark – fortunately, I got the caterpillar part right! And this busy, gracious professional was even polite about my fumbling attempt at taxonomy. I bet, he and Winnie chuckled about amateur hour later, though … It was very satisfying to read that he appreciated the photo and included it in his collection, because he had seen this stage in the field, but had no picture of it. I couldn’t help myself and sent him a picture of yesterday’s bristly neon creature, too. I Haven’t heard back yet, but I hope, he’ll continue to be patient with me. It’s not my fault that we have all these strange beasts around here, is it now? The first one, the pink sausage below (Pararcte schneideriana), was especially unusual, because, as I learned from Dr. Janzen, it only turns pink for a brief, pre-pupal stage, during which it moves on the ground in search of a suitable pupation home. Prior to these last few hours as a pink caterpillar, it lives in Guarumo trees (Cecropia obtusifolia) as a perfectly normal, green, leaf-munching larva.