Last summer in Minnesota, I saw my all-time favorite insect for only the third time ever. The camouflaged looper is a tiny inchworm that disguises itself with bits of the flower it is feeding on. It is a fairly widespread species, and probably pretty common, but it’s rarely seen because it’s so well camouflaged. I’ve written in more detail about this species in a previous post if you’re interested.
While I was excited to see the inchworm, I have to admit I was also a little disappointed. In the inchworm. I mean, really. This species is usually so well camouflaged that it blends almost perfectly with the flower it is feeding on. This one stood out like a sore thumb.
A camouflaged looper on a purple coneflower at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie in western Minnesota. The head is at the top left… You can see bits of (I think) two different flowers stuck to its back in this picture.
I’m going to give my favorite insect the benefit of the doubt and assume it was in the middle of a costume change when I saw it. It looked like it had just started to pick up pieces of the purple coneflower it was feeding on, and still had some pieces of some other flower stuck to its back. I’m sure it was in the process of shedding those other flower pieces and replacing them with coneflower parts. But still – it was pretty glaringly obvious as a light-colored critter sitting on top of a dark-colored flower head. It was awfully lucky I was just a nerdy photographer and not a hungry bird
This has to be my favorite prairie insect, although there are a lot of close runners-up. This photo is of a camouflaged looper – an inchworm that disguises itself by gluing bits of flowers to its back. It grows up to be a cute little green moth.
A camouflaged looper caterpillar on a black-eyed susan flower. The inchworm has camouflaged itself by attaching pieces of the flower to itself.
This one (above) was on a black-eyed susan flower in one of my backyard prairie gardens. The only reason I saw it was that it was walking across one of the flower petals. It looked like a bit of mung, but I stopped to look more closely and figured out what it was. It’s only the second time I’ve seen one – the last one was on purple prairie clover, and the photos I took of that one (below) showed up in a lot of places, including NEBRASKAland magazine.
Camouflaged looper on purple prairie clover.
As far as I’m aware, the decorator crab is the only other invertebrate that attaches pieces of its environment to itself for camouflage – though some others, like caddisfly larvae construct protective cases that incorporate pebbles etc. Not only does the looper create its own camouflage, it also refreshes it by replacing withered pieces with fresh over time. When the caterpillar starts feeding on a different species of flower, it replaces its whole costume to match. If you’re interested, there’s a short and interesting research paper from the late 1970’s by Miklos Treiber describing this process.
See some excellent photos of both the larva and adult stage by M.J. Hatfield here.