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Leopard Moth

by Valerie (June 19, 2000)
revised August 28, 2003
leopard moth
One of our most striking moths is the large black and white great leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia). It belongs to a group called the tiger moths, of which there are about 200 species in the U.S. Most of these moths don't have functional mouthparts, their only purpose being to breed and lay eggs. I've never seen the leopard moth feeding, but am not sure whether or not it does; it's hard to tell since most moths are active at night anyway.

leopard moths mating

The larvae are one of the kinds of woolly bear caterpillars, and the very young of the leopard moth are two-toned, just like the better known woolly bear that is black on the ends and chestnut colored in the middle.

full-grown woolly bear caterpillar curled in defensive positionyoung woolly bear caterpillar

The small caterpillar shown above at left is feeding on water hyacinth, and I've noticed them on sedum, but they mostly eat plantain, which is common enough in our lawn.

full-grown woolly bear caterpillar stretched in defensive position The woolly bears get pretty large (up to about 2 inches long) and the bigger ones are all black, with dark red bands between segments. When threatened, the caterpillar usually rolls up into a ball with all its spines sticking out. However, some of the woolly bears are a bit more aggressive and will stretch out as if reaching to ward off an attacker. They also excrete feces, which is a common defensive action among caterpillars.

When the larva creates its cocoon, it mixes its spiny hairs with silk to make a tough covering. Although the caterpillars are large, they don't do much damage in the gardens because they are never very numerous.

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