Butterflies and moths—or “Lepidopterans” by anyone with a large net in their closet—usually pick one of two aesthetic extremes: powerful camouflage, or striking coloration. Similarly, their caterpillars too tend to fall within those discrete categories.
Either one can be an adaptation. Camouflage is, of course, cryptic. It helps you blend in. Color, patterns, little add-ons like they went accessorizing at Cabela’s—insects are notorious for some truly creative and elaborate morphs and Lepidopts are no exception. Yes, Lepidopts is a word. Yes, I just made it up.
Bright coloration, on the other hand, is a warning. It signals danger to would-be predators, indicating that the host in question in toxic. Or painful. Or just bad tasting. Or it’s sneaky, and is trying to mimic something else that is. But either way, it relies on the strategy of being as obvious as possible and hoping the predator knows better. Or that the clumsy human will watch where it puts its hand.
But what’s funny is that often the larval and adult stage will often choose opposite strategies. For example, the famous Blue Morpho butterfly species complex (meaning several species of similar butterflies all referred to as “Blue Morphos”) with their iridescent blue? Very iconic, even featured on some Costa Rican money. Their caterpillars are nothing special. Ok, they’re hairy and spiny with some bright greens and reds, but really half-assing it on the colors.
The Acharia moth, on the other hand, has this flipped. The adult is famously cryptic—look just like a piece of moss. That photo above is an Acharia. Seriously, do you know how many times tried to wipe these off a window until they sprouted wings and flew away? Yet the caterpillars look like a punk rock roller on his way to a rave, all day-glo green and spines. Appropriately attention getting, since they hurt like a mother.
But there’s an important stage of the Lepidopt life cycle we’re missing here: the pupa. Most moth cocoons or butterfly chrysalises (chrysalae? Chrysala?) are pretty drab and discrete, falling more towards the camouflage side. They often are formed under leaves and look like a piece of the plant or some natural debris.
And then there’s this guy:
What species that is, I don’t know. I’m still going over guidebooks and asking around. But what I do know is that it’s so reflective it’s practically metallic, hanging there like a tiny disco ball. I’m not so sure it’s defense is meant as a warning so much as it relies on predators to refuse to eat it for being so goddamn fabulous. This thing is living jewelry. I don’t know what’s going to emerge from this or when, but it doesn’t matter since no adult form could top this getup. Toxic or not, this mariposa freaking slays.
Once more with lens flare: