A rare and bizarre caterpillar donning a skull marking is getting some appropriate attention as we head into Halloween. The caterpillar is a budding southern pink underwing moth, which is an endangered species that lives in subtropical rainforests of eastern Australia.
In its adult form, the insect has brown leaf-like wings that cover another set of deep black wings with vivid red markings and white dots. But as a caterpillar, the creature looks straight out of a horror film with an enormous head and markings that evoke thoughts of an alien skull. It also has a strange long, flat tail and eight very distinct legs.
The insect doesn’t look like a caterpillar at all. Instead, it looks more like the Predator monster, but miniaturized, or maybe a tiny Xenomorph from Alien.
Interestingly, the markings are meant to be terrifying. When the caterpillar is at rest, it resembles a dead leaf. That way it blends into its surroundings. But when it feels threatened, it reveals its horrifying face to scare off attackers.
To predators, the “eyes” make the caterpillar look like a dangerous reptile. While attempting to protect itself, it also shortens itself to give it a stout body and tail, which also resemble a reptile.
“As the caterpillar grows, it develops the skull pattern as a defense strategy to shock potential predators,” Mick Andren, a senior conservation officer with the Australian state of New South Wales, explained to Newsweek. “At rest, the skull is not clearly visible, then when threatened, the caterpillar instantaneously snaps the skull at the predator by suddenly bending its body to reveal the full skull.”
The Caterpillar Grows into a Moth with a Giant 5-Inch Wingspan
Southern pink underwing moths go through several metamorphoses, just as all moths do. It starts as an egg, hatches into a caterpillar (larva), then turns into a pupa before finally growing wings.
Through nearly all of its stages, the creature hides behind its plant-themed camouflage. Not only does it look like a dead leaf as a moth and skull brandishing monster, but as a smaller caterpillar, it looks like a stem.
The insect is incredibly important to its habitat. In caterpillar form, it eats the Carronia multisepalea, a rare Australian subtropical vine that contains alkaloids that are dangerous to many animals. Without predators to keep it under control, it will grow into a massive canopy.
As an adult, the southern pink underwing moth can grow an enormous wingspan that reaches 5-inches. But despite being so large, people rarely spot the. Because of that, the Australian government listed them as endangered in 2002. However, specialists believe that the population may be larger than they knew.
“While its true abundance is still unknown, it is more common than previously thought,” Andren said.