From Devil to King in a Year

I could see it from my seat on the mower and from about five feet away.  It was huge and turquoise and wicked looking.  I jumped off the mower for a closer look.  It was a devil of a caterpillar all right.  So, I ran to get my camera.

The hickory horned devil (Citheronia regalis), when in its fifth instar and ready to pupate, is probably the largest caterpillar in our area.  The larva can reach almost six inches in length and the one I saw was definitely that big.  What was it doing crawling along the ground, conspicuously visible?  It was ready to pupate, which they do by crawling down from their host tree and, once finding a suitable spot, burrow six inches underground and overwinter in an earthen burrow. They do not make a cocoon as many moths do.

Something akin to magic happens during its time spent in its earthen burrow. It will emerge the next spring (sometimes the spring after) having shed all similarities to a scary devil.  Well, not shed exactly, but metamorphosed into its adult form, the royal walnut moth.  As a regal member of our native wildlife, it sports a coat of greenish-gray with bright velvet-orange stripes.  There are some light gold spots upon this coat.  Its head is crowned in orange velvet with stripes of the same light gold color.  It is a stunning display, well suited to our naming it a royal moth.

Its peristalsis-like movement so transfixed me that I took a short video.  How will it pick the right spot to burrow underground?  Does it sense me peering over it?  This one day, this part of this one day in its life is critical to the success of the individual and the species (if predation while seeking its burrow outweighed successful maturation).  For weeks, it had feasted relatively protected among the leaves of a black walnut tree.  Feeding alone and at night also helps protect it.  And once underground it will be protected from most harm while it transforms.  But all could be lost in this brazen hike from treetop to underground burrow, a hike discovered to be successful through years and years of evolution.  Genetically programmed to partake in each step of its development, the hickory horned devil hasn’t much choice in the matter.   Nonetheless, it seemed intent on its quest, perhaps counting strongly on its grotesque, scary appearance to keep it safe.  My only regret is not sticking around long enough to watch it safely reach its destination.

As an adult, Citheronia regalis does not eat.  It lives only about a week.  Its sole purpose at this time is to mate and lay eggs.  Imagine spending nine to 22 months underground, for all we know oblivious to the great changes taking place in your body, only to have a week to explore the world with your new body, to mate, and to die.  Just a week to show off those beautiful new wings, surely seems unfair.  But that is because I am using a human point-of-view to see the situation.  Perhaps the regal walnut moth, with nothing more to do but mate and die, has a glorious time flying about, even if it’s only for a week.  Perhaps a glorious life and having fun is not in its schemata.

We humans, on the other hand, spend many years growing before we reach puberty.  We are (mostly) more aware of the changes that take place in puberty and get excited, often quite literally, for our adult stage, a stage we get to enjoy for up to 70 years if we are healthy and lucky.  It is funny how often we say we are so busy, when we have so much time in comparison to other creatures’ life cycles.  If you ever have the luck of circumstance to run into a hickory horned devil, please let it continue on its way undisturbed.  It’s a very busy caterpillar.

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