Giant leopard moth. Photo Credit: WhyzPhotos at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) grows from a red-striped "woolly bear"-type caterpillar to a white-spotted moth large enough to fit comfortably in an adult's hand.
As an adult, the moth is noteworthy in its appearance: Its wings are bright white, with a pattern of black and shiny blue dots (some solid and some hollow) sprinkled across them. It has a wingspan of three inches, and when its wings are spread, you can see its colorful abdomen: The top side is iridescent blue with orange markings, while the underside is white with solid black dots. Its legs have black and white bands. Male moths (they have a yellow band along the side of their abdomens) are approximately two inches long, while females grow to slightly more than half that size.
As a caterpillar, the giant leopard moth grows to approximately two inches long and has shiny black bristles covering its body. Unlike some other "hairy" creatures, these caterpillars' bristles are not urticant, which means that they don't break off in predators when touched, causing irritation and discomfort. Because the giant leopard moth's bristles do not cause this reaction, it's okay to gently touch the caterpillar. If you do, it may react by curling up in a ball, which will let you see the red or orange bands between its body segments. The caterpillar will hibernate over the winter in this form and will spin itself into a cocoon in the spring.
"Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar (Hypercompe scribonia)." Photo Credit: Aaron Carlson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.
The caterpillar eats a variety of broad-leafed plants, including violets, sunflowers, basil, dandelions, and lettuce, as well as a leaves from a number of trees, including willows, mulberries, maples, and cherries.
The giant leopard moth can be found across fields, meadows, and forest edges of eastern North America and as far south as Colombia in South America. It is nocturnal, flying only at night, and adults can be seen between April and September. When handled or threatened, it may release drops of foul-tasting yellow fluid from its thorax to ward off predators.
If you think moths are interesting, you can sign up for and participate in National Moth Week, July 23–31, a citizen science activity. You can read more about it in this blog post from 2014. You can also check out the Journey North App, which can help you track moths' and other animals' migrations and seasons, and Nowhere to Hide, a Flash-based interactive that demonstrates the story of the peppered moths in England during the Industrial Revolution. Scientists recently found the gene that explains their story.
Do you think butterflies are cooler than moths? Learn more about them in the Butterfly 1: Observing the Life Cycle of a Butterfly and Butterfly 2: A Butterfly's Home lessons for grades K-2.
Did you know that a cocoon and a chrysalis are not the same thing? You can find out what the difference is here.