The screeching babblers caught my attention immediately. I was peering out of the wire mesh door at the entrance to our home. I watched a flock of jungle babblers scrabbling on the ground under the bush of the Rangoon creeper (Quisqualis indica). The Rangoon creeper (or madhu malati as it is called in Hindi) is a frequent haunt for many species of birds. Bulbuls often nest within its enmeshed branches, well shielded by its twirling twigs and leafy canopy. Insectivorous birds like the babbler and the tailorbird visit or reside on the creeper. My interest in the creeper was on account of the fact that a moth species, the Yellow Underwing (Ophiusa coronata) lays it eggs on this plant. The caterpillars of this moth camouflage themselves so well that it is really difficult to find them, so I rely on the babblers to alert me that the moth’s eggs have hatched.
The ruckus created by the babblers lets me know that the caterpillars have possibly emerged. From under the creeper, I searched for the caterpillars, but I could not see any. I looked carefully; what is it the babblers could see that I could not? Despite my best efforts I could not spot any caterpillars until I brushed against a branch by mistake and a caterpillar plonked onto my head! The brown caterpillar matches the colour and pattern of the branches of the Rangoon creeper perfectly, and it sits along the curved length of the branch to make spotting it even more arduous. What still remains a mystery to me is how the jungle babblers are not deceived by the caterpillar’s wonderful disguise and seem to be able to locate them.
For caterpillars of moths and butterflies, camouflage is one of the most important tricks in their survival kit. Caterpillars cannot see or hear, and they cannot bite, so being well hidden is really important to them for avoiding predators. While some caterpillars can cause itching and others are bitter tasting, camouflage remains their primary tool for survival. The caterpillar of the Common Castor butterfly (Ariadne merione) is leafy green, and on its back is a pale yellow stripe, matching the colour of the veins of the leaves on which it sits. By aligning itself along leaf veins, the butterfly seeks to hide itself from predators. Other caterpillars, such as that of the Giant Redeye (Gangara thyrsis) butterfly don’t look like caterpillars at all. The white caterpillar, with some small splotches of red, has weird white ribbons on its body, and only a very smart predator will succeed in making it a tasty meal!
The next time you step out into a garden, look carefully at the plants around you. There will certainly be a well-camouflaged caterpillar hidden under a leaf on the branch of a plant.
Finding it is fun, so go ahead and match your wits against the camouflage of the caterpillar!
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