Under gray skies

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Under gray skies, on the snowball viburnum, I found a strange creature with branches on its back.

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This, it turned out, was the larva of the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton). Its host plant is turtlehead (Chelone glabra), which used to be very scarce here on the mountain until we got the white-tailed deer numbers down to a more reasonable level. Just last year, we were excited to find a big patch of turtlehead in a wet part of the field about a hundred feet away from where I snapped this picture.

The Baltimore checkerspot lays her eggs in clusters on the undersides of turtlehead leaves in mid-summer. The young caterpillars spin a communal web, like tent caterpillars or fall webworms, and over-winter as half-grown caterpillars just under the surface of the soil. The coloration of the adult preserves the orange and black from the juvenile, but white replaces the blue. These beautiful insects – the official state insect of Maryland – are yet another argument for longer hunting seasons and/or the recovery of top predators in the East – wolves and cougars.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

8 Comments


  1. I love him/her! And didn’t know about the turtleheads as host plants. They grow at my parents’ lake and in other protected slightly wet spots I know, but I’ve never searched them for caterpillars. Interesting.

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  2. What a find! How interesting that its presence turns out to be connected with the deer population.

    Your photography is really taking off. What gorgeous shots! Did you take the landscape shot yesterday (Friday)? I thought of my camera when I saw the low, well-defined clouds with sunshine pushing through here and there.

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  3. I, too, was going to comment on your photos: they are striking.

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  4. I agree with Peter–the photographs are great. I love the first and last, actually; those skies, those hills. Did you use a filter? And that caterpillar! I was scared half to bits the other day trying to snap a fallen butterfly wing when a very ugly larvae popped out of the ground right in front of the lens…not as pretty, however (http://www.flickr.com/photos/71689929@N00/148532281/). I’m very afraid of the creepy-crawlies, much to everyone’s surprise.

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  5. Hi all – Thanks for the comments & kind words about my photos!

    Peter- Yeah, I took the pictures on Friday. We have been getting expressive skies lately.

    SJ – What’s a filter? Most of my cool effects are generated by the software. In the landscape shot above, for example, I desaturated the blues and cyans to get a flat gray sky and barn roof, then saturated the greens and yellows. The caterpillar pictures have much less exaggeration, since obviously I want people to be able to recognize it if they see it in real life, so I did just enough modification of brightness/contrast and color to make up for the low-light conditions under which it was shot.

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  6. Gorgeous shots! A caterpillar as built by architects trained in the Romanesque style…. Beautiful butterfly as well.

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  7. Thanks, Elissa. I was digging the shots in your most recent post last night as well.

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