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The Squeaking Sphinx

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I told you it was going to be a special morning. I could feel it in the air. Little did I know when I turned down Best Hollow that I'd find something that would make me laugh and wonder right out loud.

As I trotted under a huge black walnut tree, I saw a small pale green sphinx caterpillar lying on the cool gravel. My first instinct was to pick up the tubular little guy, who was miraculously uninjured after his fall from who knows how high in the walnut.

I've found great ash sphinx caterpillars who've fallen onto gravel with sadly busted guts, so I was really happy that he seemed healthy and intact. He looked a lot like a great ash sphinx, but the black walnut should have been a tipoff that he was actually a (surprise!) walnut sphinx.

Since I didn't know there was such a thing as a walnut sphinx before this morning, we'll let that one go by.

I bent down to pick him up and the most amazing thing happened. Watch the video!

I love making these little videos, because they really capture the way I fool around with wild things, the way I try to help them and how they delight me. 

On the video, you'll hear me speculating that, because caterpillars lack anything that could be called a vocal apparatus, and have no wing covers to rub together, the caterpillar might be producing the squeak by forcing air out through his spiracles, which are the little holes along his sides through which he breathes. That turned out to be a pretty dang good guess, Science Chimp. I quote David Wagner's writeup in his marvelous book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America.

"When touched, the caterpillar whistles or hisses by forcing air out the spiracles. It is also a thrasher, casting its body violently from side to side when provoked. A good way to see this caterpillar is to go out at night and inspect the lower surfaces of hickory and walnut trees by flashlight--trees where you would be hard pressed to find a single caterpillar by day sometimes yield more than a half-dozen caterpillars at night."

When I read this passage I danced around the living room hooting and high-fiving Bill. That made my day! (A day easily made, but still.)

If you don't have this book, buy it NOW. It will change your life. That is, it will if you are in the habit of wondering about caterpillars.

Which I do, I do.

When I was done making this video, I looked up at the black walnut. There was no way I could reach even the lowest branch of that magnificent tree, and the cat didn't look like he would be good for the climb up the trunk to the first branch, a distance of at least 15' straight up.

So I cradled the caterpillar, now placid and calm, in my hand and ran a half mile until I found a young black walnut whose lowest branch I could reach. I had a heck of a time placing him on a leaf, because he kept squeaking and thrashing. He didn't understand what I was trying to do. Finally, after I cradled him in the leaves for a couple of minutes, he settled down and clasped the midrib. I tiptoed away and left him to growing up and becoming a walnut sphinx.

His pointy, angled little head is at the right side, even though the left end looks more like a head. That's probably the point. :) Bite this end, if bite you must.


It gets even cooler....

He is an entertaining and spunky little caterpillar! I had to watch the video twice.

What a great field trip that was! Thanks so much!! Love the little squeaker. And your kindness toward him/her. ;-)

Anonymous, that was a kickin' article. I loved every word. Makes my squeaky sphinx look like just a particle of what is probably a much larger story. I'm imagining that you might be Gary Ross, but that's probably a wild dream. This just confirms my belief that you never know who might be reading your blog, so you'd better have your game on. Thank you.

I just learned about squeaking/hissing caterpillars from Jim McCormac at a seminar last Saturday. Such serendipity to see a video days later! Thanks, Julie.

Posted by Maryann Kafer September 16, 2014 at 9:42 AM

Wonderful! Now I will be keeping my eye out for squeaking cats.

Posted by Gail Spratley September 16, 2014 at 10:08 AM

Love what you do and makes me feel more normal that someone else is so curious but if anyone thinks I am going to touch a caterpillar, forget it! Thanks for doing my dirty work for me and teaching me so much to pass on to small grandchildren.h

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