A Caterpillar and the Centipede’s Dilemma

Saltmarsh caterpillar (Estigmene acrea)

After stopping for a closer look at the lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora) overflowing a roadside ditch, I discovered a dozen or more saltmarsh caterpillars roaming among the flowers. Most were munching on leaves or moving along stems with what passes for caterpillar haste, but one had curled itself around a grass stem and seemed to be holding on for dear life.

For the ten minutes I was in its neighborhood, it never moved. It might have been resting, or pondering a drop down into the leaf litter to begin pupating, but it reminded me of this verse from childhood:

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
It threw her mind in such a pitch
She laid bewildered in the ditch,
Considering how to run.

Even though the caterpillar lacks the numerous legs of a centipede, and despite the fact that its movement depends on muscle contraction rather than the legs it does have, it still amused me to imagine my little friend pondering the verse attributed to Katherine Craster in her 1871 volume called Pinafore Poems. Whenever I grew indecisive as a child, one parent or the other would recite the lines: a bit of cautionary advice to prevent dithering.

I assume the curled up caterpillar ceased any dithering and moved on eventually, but it pleased me that others of its kind were available for photos.

Salt marsh larvae are highly variable in color, ranging from yellow to brown or black, but whatever the color of their bodies or hairs, I find their little faces charming.


Comments always are welcome.

50 thoughts on “A Caterpillar and the Centipede’s Dilemma

    1. I found an interesting historical note while I was reading about these. A page attached to the University of Florida department of entymology notes that “Saltmarsh caterpillar’s peculiar common name is derived from initial description as a pest of salt-grass hay grown in the vicinity of Boston.” They range from Central America to Canada: amazing, really.

        1. If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that when it comes to names, assume nothing. The scientific names are one thing, but even the common names can suggest locations, qualities, etc., that really aren’t justified. It does make for interesting explorations.

  1. Caterpillars are a mystery to most people, and few appreciate their diversity, but I find them fascinating. I suppose that for many years I thought of them primarily as protein for birds (if I thought of them much at all) but in recent years they have commanded quite a bit of my attention. Thanks for sharing a species I have never seen. I enjoy living where I live, and the Great Lakes have much to offer, but there are times when I wish the ocean was a little more accessible. This caterpillar highlights that desire.

    1. Here’s something to pique your interest even further. This creature has a broad range, and can be found from Central America to Canada. I suppose the operative word is ‘can,’ but still: the information offered by the University of Florida department of entymology includes this tidbit: “In Canada, it has damaged crops in Ontario and Quebec.” Some of your local birds may have been nourished by these caterpillars.

      The same article adds, “Saltmarsh caterpillar’s peculiar common name is derived from initial description as a pest of salt-grass hay grown in the vicinity of Boston.” No need to come to the Texas coast to find this one!

    1. Thanks so much! I’ve gone a little caterpillar crazy, and happily spend the time to take as many photos as is necessary to get a decent one or two. After years of never seeing caterpillars, I’m finding them somewhat regularly now. I like to say that the more we see, the more we see, and I think it’s certainly true for these little critters.

      1. I find butterflies and other little critters come and go. I hadn’t had butterflies for a few years and now they are back. I also have lots of baby toads in the yard now, which I haven’t had in a while.

  2. These are nice photos! They do have nice faces. I was also admiring the punked-out hairdo! Maybe the motionless fella overdid it with the hair gel, and just got stuck.

    1. One of the little details I came across while reading about this species was a note that their hairs are softer than those of other caterpillars, like the woolly worm. If I’d known that, I might have checked that out. Then again, I might not have. I was sufficiently traumatized by my encounter with a cute, fuzzy little asp (the caterpillar sort, not the snake) that I probably won’t touch another caterpillar the rest of my life.Each of the asp’s hairs is like a tiny hypodermic needle, and their toxins are no fun. I’ll just think “hair gel!” and be amused by that, instead.

  3. What interesting critters!! I like how the first one is clinging for dear life around that grass stem. Perhaps he was protecting himself from the rains and wind, or maybe he just decided any port in the storm would suffice?!

    1. It’s hard to say, but I did like the contrast between the grass stem and the curled up critter. A little casual observation leads me to think he might be in the process of turning around. Watching one of these things attempting to change direction can be amusing, to say the least. It’s not an easy thing to do on a grass stem!

  4. These photos are nothing less than stunning. Faces!
    What beautiful elegant creatures nobody takes the time to look at …probably a good thing. They don’t need to be identified and become the next ready pet. (Didn’t work so well for the horned toads – one of the things that reduced their numbers in the wild supposedly)
    Thanks for their background – certainly relocated and resettled well.
    (Will have to look up that book of poems – how many parents used to quote such when raising children – patently language and sources of behavior modification have shifted to less than memorable literature. A bit of a shame that)

    1. I confess the first thing that came to mind when I saw the image of the curled-up critter was a shrimp on a skewer. I’m not ready to head for the grill with them, though. For one thing, I don’t know how much meat there would be beneath all that hairy decoration, and, for another, I can’t imagine they’d taste as good as a nice Gulf shrimp.

      I don’t doubt that over-collection helped to do in the toad. There’s been a similar problem with orchids in east Texas, and with a certain white penstemon I found in Kansas that’s become known as “Arkansas wedding bouquet” or “Kansas wedding bouquet.” It’s pretty clear who’s been plucking those beauties — but they’re disappearing because of it.

      The reappearance of this little ditty has made me wonder yet again what else might be lurking in memory. My folks read to me constantly, and allowed me to read through anything on their bookshelves, so there’s no telling. All that’s needed is the trigger.

    1. I suspect we’ve all found ourselves in the position of that centipede. I think the term used for the condition today is “analysis paralysis.”

    1. Thank you, Pete. As you can imagine, there was a lot of scooting around and changing position to get these photos — all the while hoping that Mr. Caterpillar would be satisfied to hang out for just a little longer.

    1. If you look up the ‘caterpillar’s dilemma’ on Wikipedia, the entry includes a funny version of a story where the caterpillar gets paralyzed by a psychologist asking, “What’s up with that 34th foot on the left?” Sometimes questions are good, and sometimes they bring things to a complete halt.

    1. The birds eat them; the number of caterpillars needed to raise a baby bird to adulthood is enormous. But I’m not sure they’re fit for human consumption. The first thing to check would be whether they’re toxic. Of course, by the time you got rid of all that fur, the amount of meat left would be negligible, and who knows how it would taste? I did mention in another comment that the first photo reminds me of a shrimp on a skewer. Caterpillars on the barbie? That’s a thought!

  5. I don’t know why but I never think of them as having legs as such so I really loved the photos and being able to see how they were holding onto the stems! They’re kind of cute, actually! Much nicer than centipedes in the bathtub!

    1. I hope you don’t find any centipedes, or anything else, in the midst of your watery mess. I’m away from home and using my ipad, and once again Blogger isn’t allowing me to comment on your blog. I hope by the time I get home you’ll have made good progress. Well, at least some progress. And tell Rick I’m thrilled to see him back on a bike, even if only for a short time. Progress, baby!

      I learned relatively recently that the front, “true” legs of a caterpillar are used for things like eating, while those “prolegs” in the back are used for exactly what you mentioned: hanging on. You’re right that they don’t really “walk” — they kind of ripple along, and then grab hold wherever they end up.

    1. Isn’t he a cutie? Fuzzy creatures seem to be naturally appealing — even fuzzy insects. As for the little rhyme, it’s part of a whole wealth of light verse rattling around in my head, much of it pre-1950s, passed on to me by my parents. I can guarantee you it wouldn’t be approved by everyone today — but most of it’s delightfully amusing.

    1. I never used to think so, but I think I’d absorbed my mother’s view of them, which was bascially, “Ewwww.” Once I started finding them around flowers, I paid more attention to them and found them — well, pretty, and interesting, just as you say!

  6. They look rather porcu-prickly with all their bristles. I still love Walt Kelly’s permutation of their name — caterpiggles — because they eat like pigs.

    1. I found a vine yesterday that certainly looked like a herd of caterpillars had been working on it. It was putting on some new leaves, and it needed them, since it had been reduced to stubby stems. They’re not only piggish, they can be fast — as anyone who’s tried to grow tomatoes probably has learned at one time or another.

    1. Here’s a little secret: the genesis of this post was my inability to figure out what to post next. I’ve got such a stack of stuff, I couldn’t decide: hill country autumn? hill country spring? piney woods spring? Paralysis set in, and then I remembered the centipede poem and decided the caterpillar would be just the ticket.

      Good grief — that’s quite a creature you found. There’s a clerk at my local grocery store who likes blue nail polish, and it’s just about that shade. It looks better on your caterpillar (in my humble opinion, of course).

      I’ve had quite a weekend. I decided to take off for a real trip to the piney woods, and I ended up putting in nineteen hours of hiking and photographing before heading home today. Tired? Oh, my. But I saw some real treasures, including those grass pinks, and I even was up for sunrise this morning. Stay tuned!

      1. Wow, sunrise! Looking forward to that along with all your other discoveries. I bet you weren’t weary while in the midst of all that excitement.That’s the best kind of tired. While not that extended a shoot, I had a good time with the Mountain Laurels yesterday. I won’t post everything I got because eventually they look the same but there will be a few.

        That’s a Cecropia Moth larva and it supposedly evolved to look like it was festooned with lady bugs which are noxious to most predators. Not all, sadly as I discovered with that one. I assume the feet were inspired by this.

        I am not sure I’ll have any grass pinks to share this year. At least not from my favorite spot for them as the town is replacing a bridge and access to that spot is blocked from both directions. Of course I could hike there. We’ll see. Will be eager to see your images of them.

        Right now, at 3:10 a.m. I am worried the sky won’t clear for a shot at the setting full moon. Forecast last night was for clearing skies but at the moment uh-uh.

        1. I wasn’t exactly weary during the days, but I did slow down from time to time. That’s one good thing about going solo instead of with a group. I learned a tremendous amount on the field trips, but it’s nice to be able to rest occasionally, or take the time needed for a decent photo. In my case, that can be a lot of time.

          When I was skimming through my photos last night I noticed one thing — the green in some of them is the same kind of intense, deeply saturated green I’ve seen in your photos. Maybe vibrant is a better word for the effect. One image is too poor to be posted, but it’s a great example: an intimate view of green leaves mottled with red “something.” I know where to find them, and will look again next time — provided they haven’t shriveled up and died.

          1. I take a lot of time, if there is plenty, for my images. Obviously, sunrise (or sunset) has a limited availability but most else allows for deliberate thought about composition and lighting. And as you have heard from both Steve and me, returning to a spot yields lots of benefits along with experience and new ways of seeing. I also photographed a leaf with red tinges yesterday. It may see the light of the internet eventually. But it is similar to something I shared earlier this Spring. I wouldn’t mind seeing your leaf image if you want to email it.
            I rarely shoot with even one other person so a workshop/tour would be stressful. And you may have seen examples on the internet of some of the extreme rows of tripods all lined up and intertwined at some iconic location. None will ever be mine.

            1. Two of the trails I hiked this weekend had no people on them at all. When I returned later to the spot where I took the sunrise photo, I encountered three people: two young men from Stephen F. Austin University who’d been netting insects for a project, and a fellow who saw my car at the gate, and then saw me on the ground. He hollered at me to be sure I wasn’t hurt, then laughed when I yelled back that I was photographing sundews. You know about that, I’m sure. A quarter-sized plant that grows flat to the ground isn’t the easiest thing to focus on.

              Here’s the leafy little beauty. I don’t have a clue what it is, but it caught my eye.

            2. That could possibly be leaf spot, a fungus that causes red spots which eventually rot and kill the leaf. I don’t know the leaves.
              Yes, I do know sundew and am planning on photographing some when I visit a bog later this month or early July for pitcher plants and maybe even some grass pinks.
              You’ve got to stop giving people the idea they are seeing a cadaver. LOL

    1. I’ve grown rather fond of caterpillars, especially the “fancy” ones with pretty colors and designs. Some of the smaller ones aren’t so photogenic, but they probably look just as good to the baby birds who thrive on them. I’ve yet to establish eye contact with one — at least, that I can recognize — but I’m working on it.

    1. It is fun to capture those little bug faces. My favorites might be the katydid nymphs. Even the smallest ones are obviously aware of our presence, if not the camera, and responsive to every movement. Like the caterpillars, they’re everywhere just now, and chowing down enthusiastically.

  7. What wonderful close-ups, Linda, wow! I don’t know if I can go as far as you do, feeling charmed by their faces, but these photos certainly make a case for them as just plain amazing beings.

    1. They are fascinating. At first I thought I had two species here, but they’re all the same creature in different stages of development: hence, the slightly different colors. It’s quite an experience to make eye contact with a caterpillar and realize that it really is looking back — probably trying to decide if the creature with the big, black appendage wants to make a meal of it.

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