My favorite insect further endears itself to me

Longtime readers of this blog might know that my favorite insect is the camouflaged looper (which turns into the wavy-lined emerald moth). This tiny inchworm disguises itself by gluing bits of flower to its back while it feeds on the same flower. It’s a brilliant strategy, and one that has probably kept me from many seeing more individuals of this species when I’m out and around.

Last week, I was driving slowly along a two-track trail road at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, scanning for interesting insects as I drove. I’d just spent a couple hours on my belly, photographing dung beetles, wasps, robber flies, and other insects in a sand blowout and I was tired and ready to take a break. However, the light was still nice. I compromised by driving toward headquarters while still staying alert for potential photo opportunities.

As I drove past one particular sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), something caught my eye and I stopped and backed the truck up for a second look. Hopping out, I took a few steps over to the flower, bent down to inspect it, and immediately grabbed my camera bag out of the truck. I spent the next 10 minutes or so photographing my favorite insect.

The camouflaged looper on plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).
Here’s a closer look. You can see it chewing on a a black anther full of pollen. You can also see the bits of flower on its back. It looks to me like a combination of sunflower (dark) and some other flower I can’t identify (lighter).

It was a little breezy for photography, so I had to hold the sunflower stem with one hand and click the shutter with the other. Because of that, I wasn’t absolutely sure I was getting perfect shots. When I was done, I took both the sunflower and the caterpillar with me. I figured I might keep it in the cabin with me for a few days and watch it, maybe photograph it some more, and give some other people a chance to see it too.

I put the sunflower in a glass jar of water and put a clear drinking glass over the to create a makeshift caterpillar apartment. Later, I added a couple hoary vervain flowers in case the caterpillar wanted to change diet/costumes. I also put a piece of paper towel across the top of the jar to keep the caterpillar from falling into the water. That turned out to be a more significant decision than I’d anticipated.

Here is my makeshift caterpillar apartment with the top drinking glass removed for the photo. Note the paper towel I used to keep the caterpillar from falling into the water.

When I woke up the next morning and checked the caterpillar, it was doing great. It had also changed its costume, though not as I’d expected. Instead of sunflower anthers or vervain petals, the little bugger had ripped up the paper towel and stuck pieces of paper to its back! It was taking advantage of its surroundings and blending in with what was there. I love it even more now.

Paper towel caterpillar!

I ended up bringing the inchworm back home with me because I figured it would be fun for the whole family to watch it for a while. As I write this, it is happily munching on a stiff sunflower on my dining room table. I used clear plastic wrap instead of a paper towel to seal up the top of the jar. I wondered if might grab some of that clear plastic (wouldn’t that be something?) but it seems to be more predictably changing out its paper towel costume for one made of stiff sunflower parts. That’s pretty cool too.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

32 thoughts on “My favorite insect further endears itself to me

  1. Thanks so much for introducing us to this wonderful insect! I was able to find several of them today and was so excited to see them! They are not easy to photograph, so I commend you for your great photos.

  2. You can spot an camouflaged inchworm from a moving truck? The heck with caterpillars, somebody needs to be studying you.
    Of course, out there on the open plains, you never know who’s watching.

  3. Wow. That is just the darnedest.

    On Tue, Jul 27, 2021 at 5:29 PM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Longtime readers of this blog might know that my > favorite insect is the camouflaged looper (which turns into the wavy-lined > emerald moth). This tiny inchworm disguises itself by gluing bits of flower > to its back while it feeds on the same flower. It’s ” >

  4. Fascinating stuff. And a perfect strategy to avoid being seen and killed; well, at least before the time of spraying insecticides of course.

  5. I believe I have seen this before. I didn’t know what it was tho. Great photos. Who could not admire this little fellow.

  6. I had a similar experience when rearing bagworm moths in a lab. I had an egg case in a petri dish with a paper disk at the bottom. When the larvae hatched, they used pieces of the paper disk to make their protective “bags,” and I ended up with dozens of tiny bagworms walking around with little while cones over them, rather than cedar needles. It was so unexpected, but of course made sense – use what you’ve got!

  7. You remind me a of of my photography mentor. The most important thing he taught me was
    to . . .Look! Everything starts there,

  8. So great to learn from your experiment here – what fun! Two Saturdays ago, I’d just learned about this insect from Heather Holm’s excellent book, Pollinators of Native Plants, as I was trying to get ideas of what insects I might see on greyheaded coneflower on our CRP planting in WI. Hoping I’d actually see a camouflaged looper, I went looking – and then nearly right away – voila – I saw one! Bliss.

  9. We just saw a wavy-lined emerald moth on our garage door in south Lincoln about a week ago; it was tiny but gorgeous! Then we looked up the caterpillar and we’re absolutely amazed! Now I want to stand outside and stare at my plants but I’m afraid the neighbors might talk ….. What a remarkable creature!

  10. Fascinating observation, Chris.
    Insects continue to amaze me, even after they first amazed me almost 65 years ago!

  11. This is fascinating! And I think you just helped me ID a caterpillar I saw back at the end of June in one of our prairie areas. I work for the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center in Ladue, MO (St. Louis County). One of our wonderful volunteers, Cindy, is the mother of your current intern Sarah!

  12. I love the way your articles zoom out to the bigger picture of the prairie landscape and then zoom in to such tiny and fascinating details. Thank you also for your recent hints on photographing insects – ‘focus on the eyes’ is my new mantra!

  13. Thanks for your fun post! I was wondering what was living on my echinacea – I have had an ambush bug there, but this was different. Now I know what it is, which is awesome! Mine has dusty pink stuff for a costume and I am happy to have the little beastie. I admit to being speciesist – Japanese beetles and squash bugs can go to their doom, but anything that is beneficial or interesting can stay The JBs have already left the echinacea in tatters, so the camouflaged looper can’t really make them look any worse. Mr. (or Mrs.) Ambush Bug seems to be catching mostly flies and I keep my fingers crossed that it remains that way, because I see a cute banded hairstreak wandering awfully close, but I don’t interfere, at least not intentionally. I have never seen the moth that it will become, except in pictures.

  14. That is soooooo cool! Now I want to find one of these!!! I wonder if we have them in northern IL…. hmmmmm……

  15. Thank you. I am not an outdoors person, but bought a weed whacker, yesterday! What my grandkids point out to me, are insects you can hardly see, & practically transparent! If one of them doesn’t major in biology, become a forest ranger, farmer, or a person always going back to the country, like they were raised, I’d be surprised.

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