By Ng Mei Bao who is a Senior Science Educator at Science Centre Singapore.
A very interesting find outside a friend’s house led to this search and discovery of a seemingly common animal in Singapore, yet many of us have barely had the chance to catch a glimpse of this beautiful creature in action.
Featured here is the larvae stage of the Brown Tussock Moth, also scientifically known as Olene mendosa. We may have missed the adults flying around as they are small and dull brownish-grey in colour, but this caterpillar definitely caught our attention with its bright red head, hairy tufts and of course, who can miss those long hair pencils sticking out from the front and rear ends of this creature!
You might wonder, where would you be able to try spotting this caterpillar? This voracious feeder can be found feasting on the leaves of a wide variety of plants, unlike some other caterpillars which can be really picky when it comes to the type of plants they choose to feed on. The food plants for the larva of Olene mendosa include fruit trees such as durian, guava, jackfruit, mango, rambutan, jambu air/water apple; medicinal plants such as the castor oil plant, and even mangrove trees of the Bruguiera species… and the list goes on!
Because of its huge appetite, this caterpillar is considered a pest to farmers and gardeners who do not like to see their plants riddled with holes. If you have plants around your area which it commonly feeds on, take up the challenge and test your observation skills.
If you do manage to find one, it sure is tempting to reach out and caress this beauty, but wait – for the world of caterpillars, hairy can be scary! The Brown Tussock Moth hails from the family of moths known as Lymantriidae, the caterpillar or larval stage of this moth is characterised by its distinctive hairy appearance. The long, softer hairs often have urticating hairs (hairs that cause irritation) hidden in their midst, and in many cases, these urticating hairs can break off when we are in contact with them, causing possibly painful reactions. Our furry friend here does not mean to harm us, this is simply the way it defends its tasty self from predators. As it pupates, the caterpillar sheds those hairs and weaves them into a cocoon around itself, which also helps to protect it during that vulnerable stage. In fact, caterpillars are not the only ones which utilize urticating hairs for defense; tarantulas and even plants such as stinging nettles have such a mechanism to ward off unwanted attention.
Do keep your eyes open for more wonders of nature as you go about your daily activities – who knows what gems you may discover; and do share them with us if you can!
Go and walk with Nature; thou wilt find
Full many a gem in her enchanted cup. –Isaac Mclellan, “Musings”
A video of this same caterpillar was also shared earlier on Science It Facebook page.