Nature: Still Weirder Than Pokémon

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What is this?

Yesterday I went walking around our local university campus for a smidgeon of Pokémon Go (I’m an adult, and I get to decide what that means). I bumped into a woman I had bumped into on campus previously, who was also playing Pokémon Go. This woman, in her forties, told me that she had lost a whole lot of weight in the past few months but started to flag and gain it back the past couple of weeks. At the urging of her adult children, she downloaded Pokémon Go and started using it to get herself to walk more out of the house.

Well, this time she had a buddy with her — one of my former students! Now a fifth grader, he started going for walks with his neighbor, her for the exercise, him to play Pokémon Go. I dig that system! I joined them for a bit, my former student and I telling each other our favorite pocket monsters.

We started noticing weird bundles of leaves dangling down from some trees — one, two, three. One dangled down far enough that we were able to get a really good look at it. It was some sort of caterpillar with its head poking out of a cocoon. (Not a chrysalis, I assured my spouse later — it was definitely a structure separate from the caterpillar and not its hardened body.) Not only did it have a cocoon, but it also used leaves from the tree to graft onto its cocoon. How peculiar! My former student wanted to believe it was a monarch, but I suspected otherwise.

I tried taking pictures, but the wind blew it around and I couldn’t get it to focus. I ended up taking video, which was also mostly out of focus, but I was able to screenshot one very clear half of a second.

Then, when I got home, I tried using search engines to figure out what it was. Alas, “caterpillar cocoon dangle tree leaves” is not a specific enough to get the results I wanted. I tried a bunch of other keywords, but the fact is, I do not know enough about creepy crawlies to have a useful and effective vocabulary for online searches. The Internet would not be enough!

So today we went to the local nature center, which is affiliated with the same local university, to hopefully ask someone who knew more than I did. I leafed through some of their materials before I took out my phone and showed the screenshot to someone in the know. Lo and behold, they recognized it — a female bagworm. This one would have been tricky to figure out online even if I had better search terms. Bagworms make their bags covered in the leaves of the tree they live in — in this case, sycamore — so when you look up images of them, they all might look very different from each other and it’s hard to tell whether it’s really the same thing. Additionally, the person I showed the picture to could tell it was a female bagworm because female bagworms never turn into moths, only males do! The females create and then live in their bags, eventually laying their eggs inside them before they die.

However weird those Pokémon get, never forget — nature is weirder.

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