A Tale Of Blobs And Flying Caterpillars

A blob on a tree leads to tales of flightless moths and flying caterpillars in our local forests. Photo by Jeff Tome

Sometimes the most unremarkable looking things are the ones that are truly remarkable. It can be hard to remember that outside. There is a human tendency to dwell on the brightest, biggest and most unique things that are seen. Attention is easily drawn to the bright red cardinal in the snow, while the humble Fox Sparrow, visiting on its way to the North pole, draws hardly a glance.

This article is about a blob. There are few things less interesting in life than a blob. In this case, it is a light colored, roundish blob pressed up almost invisibly in the crevices of a Black Cherry tree, whose bark is shaped like tiny, crusty, broken-up, dark dinner plates. For whatever reason, that light colored blob caught my attention, and the more I discovered, the more fascinating a blob it became.

Up close, the blob took on more character. It was actually a thin, Styrofoam-like crust on top of a layer of long, yellowish hairs. Ten years ago, I would have thought it odd or interesting and moved on. Now, the blob captures a tiny bit of my brain that won’t rest until the story behind it is learned.

It is a tale of moths that cannot fly and caterpillars that can. The hairy lump under the foam-like substance was the cocoon of a non-descript little moth called the Definite Tussock Moth. The female emerges looking like, according to the book “The Tracks and Signs of Insects,” a white slug. She has no wings and attracts males to her by emitting a powerful smell called a pheromone to attract the winged males to her.

Once they mate, she lays her eggs on her old cocoon and dies. The eggs are embedded in a layer of tan colored foam across the top of the cocoon, where they spend the cold winter months. Sometime in the spring (and I hope to watch this!), the tiny caterpillars will hatch. They will send out a string of silk to rope in the wind, then float away, where they will start a new life on another tree. This is called ballooning.

The caterpillars are the most beautiful part of the life cycle. They have thick tufts of yellowish hair on their backs and longer hairs like whiskers on the ends. The caterpillars make cocoons at the end of summer. Sometime soon (later this spring when the Black Cherry has leaves), they will emerge, and the winged males will find the flightless females to start a new generation of shapeless blobs that lurk on the sides of trees.

Sometimes, a shapeless blob has a story to tell if we are just patient enough to look for the answers. Nature is full of stories like this; things that are unremarkable on the surface sometimes have a lot more to look into than could ever be imagined.

Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist for Programs and Exhibits at the Jamestown Audubon Society and a longtime CWC volunteer and former board director. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.