Wednesday, January 31, 2018

From Second To Third Instar Spotted Oleander Caterpillars

We last left you on day six of our tiny caterpillar story.  Number nine was accommodating to his new skin and the others had started to enjoy some fresh greens and sunshine. 

Day seven was all veggies all day long and a lot of consumption was happening in these parts.

Beside the fact that they have now reached 5/8 of an inch, the biggest change is that our little ones are now eating right down the edge of the leaf and devouring whole portions of it not just the top layer. 

what goes in must come out so the end result (pun somewhat intended) is an obvious increase in frass.  The good news is that caterpillar poop is dry.  Or at least it is by the time Nicole cleans out their box.  It just all rolls together like sand and she pours it into the trash.  Something else that wasn't quite obvious until the cats (and their resulting frass) increased in size is that it is green.  Sort of makes sense when you think about it.

When we arrived home late on the evening of day seven our baby Spotted Oleander Caterpillars were given a whole new, fresh and clean set-up.  Although they nibbled a tad, they were not their usual exuberant selves in the presence of fresh food.

Although this one whom has now become known as number eight continued to chow down for a bit...

the other ones were beginning to look and behave 'funny'.  They were very puffy looking and they had all assumed the same position on the top of a fresh leaf. 

Do I look bloated to you?

At first, Nicole thought that maybe they were just going to team up on the leaf and eat the whole thing together like a little caterpillar party. 

However, they never moved and they never ate even a single bite. 

Instead they just sat there and in the morning they were still sitting there. 

This had Nicole very worried so on day eight she watched them intently.   She could see them on top of the leaf while she worked on her computer. 

Then, one time she glanced over and they were all gone!  She rushed over to their container and had to do a double-take because for a moment she thought that her world had literally turned upside down. 

The caterpillars had all moved to the underside of the leaf.  Almost like clockwork it seemed. 

There they sat, not touching the new food she had just brought them.  Although she thought that perhaps they were getting ready to molt again, her worry continued because it was taking so much longer than it did the first time. 

Nicole got no sleep between day eight and nine because she kept getting up to check on the babies.  At one point she looked at them and they seemed dark.  This was a cause of great concern as dark in cats or eggs usually means 'the end'.  

It should be mentioned that while these eight were for all appearances suffering a great fate, number nine was thoroughly enjoying his solo buffet.

So, the runt will be the only one to survive, she thought.  Unexpected.

In the morning light she decided that the only reasonable thing to do was to take some macro photos and see if she could determine anything by looking on the computer. 

What she determined is that their darkening color was a result of being able to see their new body and crisscrossed tufts of new black hairs under the exterior shell they were getting ready to shed.

Their head capsules were also looking very clear and shining in the sunlight. 

This was a relief and quite a sight to behold and witness considering the first time they molted they were too tiny to gain a good view of the process.  This time, we were able to witness every aspect and it was fascinating.

We'll walk you through it as much as possible.  Since this was our first time with a good view of the process Nicole shot a combination of photos and video.  The video we'll share later.  Here's the photos.

Shew!  Fresh out of my old skin and looking like a 1950's greaser.  Time to pump my tail up and down for a little while and then like magic..

POOF!  My hair miraculously pops up into place.  Just like that!

Then it is time for a little wiggle dance. 

Wiggle.  Wiggle.  Wiggle.  I comb my new hair.  All while still hanging upside down, mind you.

The last thing I do is rub my head on the leaf to dislodge that old 'too small' head capsule.

Here it is, the old head capsule.  Just barely bigger than a pencil tip. 

Here's a great shot of the old skin (hair and all).  If you look closely you can even see where the cats legs were.

After good rest, the baby Empyreuma affinis caterpillars turn around and eat their old skin.  It usually takes many more hours before they are ready to start eating leaves again.

But once they are, they go about it in a ravenous way!

Yum, yum, yum.

A couple of days of constant eating and pooping and growing.

Lots of eating and pooping... and growing.

Just look at how beautiful we have become!  We are officially third Instars and well on our way to molting into fourth.

As of this writing, as Nicole checks the calendar and checks on the young spotted oleander caterpillars it appears that they are already preparing for their third molt.  Oh how time flies!

And, just how is number nine doing?

Well, we are finding some separation in our siblings.  On day nine seven of them molted all within about thirty minutes of each other and have immediately shown significant changes in size with the largest on being a full 7/8" and then some.   Number eight who is just slightly smaller than the other seven molted a day later on morning number ten. 

Number nine is still hanging in there and finally molted on the afternoon of day eleven.  Today number nine finally started moving around and showing himself and compared to the others still has some catching up to do.

The size differential is significant but since he is passing all of the expected molting milestones we hope that number nine will pull through to become a beautiful Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth (Empyreuma pugione).  Either way, it appears that had he been left to fend for himself in the wild, there is a good chance he may not have made it.


                                             And, that's the frass from our world...

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Eating, Pooping, Growing and Number Nine

The title says it all.  Just like tiny humans, our baby caterpillars have a pretty consistent routine of E, P and G. 

Day two started out with the unexpected birth of Number Nine.  Unexpected in that we had consistently counted eight the day before and there was no sign of a ninth egg.  Nonetheless, nine it was.

While Number Nine was still adjusting to life outside the egg, the rest of the gang had begun the serious work of devouring what they could of their host plant. 

We have begun to find pretty patterns on the leaves.  And a lot of frass (a.k.a. caterpillar poop).

One of our little ones thought they were funny making a picture of a caterpillar!

Our babies food source is refreshed for them every other day.  Caterpillars are very limited in their diet and many species will eat only the leaves of a particular plant.  When given the option of eating a different plant from what they are used to or starving, most would starve to death.

Knowing this, Nicole makes sure to not only take their fresh food from the oleander farm location where she acquired the eggs but also from the exact plant that their eggs had been laid on.


Caterpillars have jaws called mandibles which contain very sharp cutting surfaces.  They also have two maxillae (smaller mouth parts) which guide food into the mouth.  The maxillae also have taste cells which let the caterpillar know when food is or is not appropriate to eat.  Tiny antennae near the mouth parts provide a sense of smell.

Although they still remain rather close to each other on a regular basis, our little brood is developing into a variety of individual characters.

Like this one that likes to eat with its anal prolegs in the air.  They are cute little boogers, that's for sure!

We've got a couple of roamers, one who thus far appears spotless and a few straight up piglets, as well.  The morning of day three we were finally able to get an approximate measure on them of around 1/4 of an inch. 

After watching the little ones moving about, exploring, eating and pooping, the evening of day four was a bit confusing and somewhat worrisome as all of our little cats had become somewhat immobile.   But the morning of day five revealed a very good reason.

They were preparing for their first molt (also known as completion of their first Instar). 

A caterpillars skin does not grow with them.  It is more of an exterior shell than a skin (an exoskeleton to be exact).  Since they are eating so much they outgrow their skin and at some point must leave it behind.  Most caterpillars will go through four or five molts before being full size and ready to pupate.

First instar complete.  Exoskeleton left behind.  Starting second instar.   Our babies are growing up!

They are also growing into their adult looking selves which has confirmed that they are indeed Empyreuma affinis - the Spotted Oleander Caterpillar. YEAH!

                                         Boy am I glad to get out of that old skin!

My cute little silvery spots confirm that I am indeed the spotted oleander caterpillar mama Nicole had hoped for.

Fingers left in for reference.  After completing their first instar, our babies have grown an 1/8 of an inch reaching 3/8 inch in length.

Nicole was bummed to have to go to work on the day of first molt but Darlene sent her baby updates and somehow she made it through!  This work thing really gets in the way.

As day five came to a close, we noticed that we still had one tiny little cat and concluded that it must be Number Nine and it had not molted.  Bummer.  Hope it is o.k.

But in the morning we found Number Nine had just left the his or her old skin behind and also begun the second instar.

A day behind the others, Number Nine will spend today adjusting to new skin and getting his / her new hairdo in order.

Meanwhile, the rest of the army has become fully engaged in the process of growing up!

Size comparison.  Number Nine has some catching up to do.

Big brother / sister (a full day into their second instar)  dwarfing Number Nine who is fresh out of first molt.

Since we have them inside, every evening the cats get moved to a darker area of the house.

And in the mornings, we open up the blinds and let them enjoy the sunshine.

Ahhhhh.... the life.  New food brought fresh every other day, my frass cleaned up, no predators, few competitors, a mama who loves us and SUNSHINE!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Tiny x 8... um, 9

If you are a regular follower of our adventures then you are all too familiar with the fact that Nicole likes to look at and photograph tiny things. In more recent times, butterfly and moth eggs have become quite the fascination. 

There is a section of bushes on our way to work that Darlene has named the Oleander Farm.  Since discovering the lifecycle of the Oleander Caterpillar which becomes the Polka Dot Wasp Moth, Nicole has taken to visiting The Farm quite frequently to watch and try to photograph the cycle.

What she has witnessed is amazing.

Polka dot wasp moths laying eggs right in front of her eyes.

So MANY eggs!

Around a week later....  the cats emerge.

When little, their mouths cannot handle the thickness of the leaf so they eat only the first layer.

Lots of eating and several growth stages later... they are ready to pupate and begin the cycle again.

Looking so intently for the tiniest of things requires some up close glasses and some up close proximity.  Occasionally, surprises happen...

           Like the spotting of this unusual egg of which we still don't know the identity.

Sometimes, the sightings are just a little too close for comfort. 

                     Like when Nicole happened upon this beautiful Tropical Orb Weaver

                                      and this Spotless Lady Beetle.  Both new finds.

While turning over leaves looking for the white eggs she had seen the Polka Dot Wasp Moth laying

            Nicole discovered these five beautiful orange ones.  Oh, something different!

Shortly after she caught sight of this Spotted Oleander Moth and held it in her hand for a brief moment before it flew away.

The Spotted Oleander Moth produces another (more rare) caterpillar that loves Oleander bushes called the Spotted Oleander Caterpillar.  Although still orange its coloring is lighter, it possesses beautiful silver / white spots and not so much of the prominent black hair that the regular Oleander Caterpillar has.

We have never seen this caterpillar.  A few days later, Darlene found that one had begun to pupate on her bicycle cover. 

We brought it upstairs hoping to witness the emergence of the Spotted Oleander Wasp Moth but alas it was not meant to be.

This got Nicole thinking about those orange eggs and wondering if they needed a safe place to grow.  When she returned the next day to inspect them..

there were three more perfect little orange eggs on the topside of the same leaf.

Her mind was made up... she was going to adopt these eggs. 

She carefully plucked the leaf from its plant and put it in a safe container for the trip home. 

They remained on the back porch where she checked on them a few times a day every day.  Last night, they started looking dark and she feared they had been taken over by parasites.

But yesterday morning when she checked on them she saw this...

a newly hatched baby cat, one in the process of hatching and a still intact egg.

Before breakfast we had seven baby caterpillars moving about in their container.

Number eight sure looked ready.  You could start to see the orange body color and the black of the hairs.

While Nicole was out gathering more food from the Oleander Farm, the eighth one emerged

and began the process of eating its egg shell

a process which is also known as the caterpillars first official meal.

Oh and upon waking up today we checked in our our day old babies to discover not eight but nine???!!!  There were only eight eggs and caterpillars reportedly cannot be twins but several re-counts later and it is what it is...  NINE BABIES!