Are the moth guys colour blind – or why can nobody identify my turquoise caterpillar?

Turquoise caterpillarWho am I – I eat fast, I grow fast, and I prefer Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea) leaves above all others. I live in continental Europe? All answers are welcome!

My plants have split into two clear camps: the plants that love fertilizer, thumb their noses at the rubbish weather and generally are “indestructible” – this includes a giant mutant lovage plant, a dwarf peach tree with lots of tiny peaches on it (for sure something will go wrong before they are ripe, stay tuned), my peonies,  two rose plants, the Aquilegia, scurvy grass, my wood-ruff, which is happily growing in the shade of the Aquilegia, a drooping heart that has been growing in such an exemplary fashion that if the growth curve was shown to execs they’d be promising you a ginormous bonus and wanting to expand the approach to the other product teams.

The second camp of plants are the ones that have decided they cannot take it anymore, and I sympathize, I really do. This group of plants contains many sensitive souls from the   mediterranean region – Greek Basil, lovingly imported Egyptian Basil, pineapple mint, orange mint, thyme. And a little like children on a mountain hike with their parents, these plants are doing the plant equivalent of “you brought me here and planted me in this miserable climate, and I never said I would like it and now I really don’t like it and just wait I will show you”  – some are still vaguely alive, but not happy. Not much I can do about the weather so all I can do is re-pot them into less humus rich soil, keep them dry and see if they will make it. At this point Landkrauter would just grab ’em and throw ’em out – no bleeding heart Landkrauter.

Now in between the plants of the “it’s ok, nothing can get me down” persuasion, and the whiny plants, there is a middle camp that is undecided – which is where you will find my Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea). The poor thing was full of holes, who would have thought that anything could find the thick furry leaves tasty? On close inspection there were lots of little black droppings – which having learned from the Cetonia aurata experience – I identified easily as fecal pellets, seeking for the pellet producers on the leaf undersides led to the discovery of  3 caterpillars. I took them captive (in a mango chutney jar, minus the chutney if you are wondering) and added a digitalis leaf for them to munch on, before  turning  to google for identification purposes, to discover whether they are rare protected butterfly caterpillars (yay) – or just another munching thing on my balcony (boo).

In the meantime I have had the leaf on my desk and am observing the caterpillars – in the space of 1/2 hour the biggest caterpillar has eaten a hole 1cm x 0.5 cm into the leaf and I now understand why the plant is full of holes, although I only found 3 caterpillars. They are fast. While the damage they do is undeniable, and quite impressive, the fervour with which they feed gives me the impression that it’s a life or death activity. Putting my head down close to the desk I can hear them munching frantically. And apropos life and death, as I moved one of the three caterpillars onto the desk it’s head fell off…… yes really….leaving a smooth, round end, which looked a lot like a healed skin flap after a lower leg amputation. A smooth, round stump in pale turquoise, with no other markings. I thought, it’s dead, and do their heads drop off really?  But when I prodded it it was still moving and as I watched the stump started butting the tail end  energetically. The tail end looked shrivelled and constricted and had me wondering if I had inadvertently broken the poor things back and left it paraplegic, although I full well know that caterpillars don’t function that way. Anyway I watched the caterpilllar got more and more lively and after about 30 minutes the markings were all coloured in again and,  there was a head where, before there was not. And as soon as the new head was functional it set about eating the molted skin which was what had been constricting the tail end, thereby recycling all that energy into building a bigger, better body!

So what else have I learned, or relearned: 1) butterfly and insect specialists are called lepidopterists or if you like pretty names you can also call them Aurelians (source wiki) and it seems to me they don’t really have an artistic side to them because not a single caterpillar identification website has caterpillars with colours that match the ones I have munching holes in the leaf on my desk. For example if you type in blue caterpillar you get a washed out grey caterpillar, if you type in yellow – you get a hazelnut colour and if you google blue caterpillar you get the one below as an example – which I am pretty sure is predominantly green and yellow and ok just a little bit of pale blue if you look closely, but I suspect unless I photo shop it heavily is predominantly green/yellow – or am I colour blind?

Pale  blue caterpillar with yellow spines - Automeris io

http://bugguide.net/node/view/295787/bgimage

Now the blue caterpillars are green, the yellow ones brown and you cannot even type in turquoise as a search term, it seems they don’t come in turquoise, apart from on my desk, unless you count stuffed caterpillar toys which for the purpose of this exercise I have excluded. My caterpillars have a turquoise body with yellow  bands and black spots. They look a little like a cabbage white but they are not green and don’t have yellow stripes along the length of their body.

If anyone knows what they are I would love to hear it.

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9 thoughts on “Are the moth guys colour blind – or why can nobody identify my turquoise caterpillar?

  1. Hello novice gardener 🙂 – yes I was a bit worried – there was this little black face mask type think just sitting on the paper – very thin – not hysterical – not in this situation no but rest assured if heads start falling off larger critters and growing back I wouldn’t want to make any bets..

  2. I agree with Linda. it is a Schwalbenschwanz. If the digitalis was from my garden, it is most likely. (-: I spotted them several times in the adult form
    Another asylum needed here? i have enough digitalis to kill a batallion or feed a batallion whatever is applicable.
    AND NO I would not throw those plant you mentioned out, I’ d just ignore them
    Fend for yourself is the motto
    Greez Landkrauter
    PS had to kill tons of slugs today

  3. hello my dear landkrauter – I see that I am happily transporting Cetonia aurata and other critters back and forth across the borders, it’s turning into a true biology project and exchange :)! I sadly suspect it’s not a swallowtail because because because because because – the caterpillars are not on digitalis ( I am embarrassed to say) but on verbascum….

    • Dear Helen – yes the little critters : ) thanks very much for commenting – I finally discovered what they were – they munched their way through all my plants, I must go check out the foxglove now that you mention it 😦 – I was unable to kill them though – I am a bad gardener that way! Thanks so much for commenting really appreciate it!

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