Over the summer I took this photo of a Black Swallowtail caterpillar making its way through my wife’s garden, and remember at the time not deriving anything remarkable from the image save for the interesting interplay of light and shadow on the insect’s body.
It wasn’t until I imported the photo onto my laptop and viewed it on a larger monitor that my mind starting wandering down strange visualization pathways as I considered how a predator might view the lumbering larva’s skin patterns.
Don’t ask me why, I’ve always had the penchant to “see” things as a matter of abstraction, but with slow moving insects, the body coloration falls generally into one of a few categories:
- Look gaudy, but taste horrible
- Blend in perfectly to the environment to appear invisible
- Appear to have scary eyes and teeth
- Have bold looking eyes in a non-critical body area, to deceive where a predator strikes
I maintain that the Black Swallowtail larva demonstrates the third, and appears scary to rear-facing predators. Typically that follows a pattern of spots = eyes; so my first be-a-predator-for-a-minute suspension-of-reality had me focus on the small yellow dots as eyes. What appears?? Orco! The loveable little floating guy from the He-Man cartoon series. Hit reset on the visualization, look away and think black spots are eyes, look back and….Ernest Hemingway???
Neither Orco nor Ernest are very intimidating (to me at least) but when I backed my visualization out a “segment” and reverted to yellow as the eye color, I could see a definite visage that reminded me of either a deep sea Viperfish or perhaps a Moray Eel:
Now THAT looks scary. It really is amazing what nature can offer the eye, even from a simple, plodding insect making its way along a plant stalk. It won’t be long before the leaf munching gives way to a blur of color in a flighty dance. But even then, when the matured Black Swallowtail is still, “eyes” and a deceiving illusion appears. See the cartoon red eyes and blue eyebrows on the wings below? That’s where a predator would likely strike — and only get a mouthful of wing scales instead of the nourishing body it would be expecting.
To me, it now looks like a big Galaga bug 🙂