Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Drama in black, chartreuse, pink and yellow

with 24 comments

Click for greater clarity.

On July 25, 2011, a year and a day ago, I went to the prairie restoration at Austin’s old Mueller Airport. At one point during a walk around the pond there, I sat down to photograph some flowers of sensitive briar, Mimosa roemeriana. Briars these plants surely are, with recurved prickles that have a knack for embedding themselves in the skin of people who handle them incautiously. And it isn’t only people’s skin that’s sensitive: touch the compound leaves of one of these low-growing plants, and watch the little leaflets fold shut within seconds.

But a drama other than the closing of leaflets caught my attention once I’d sat down. On the underside of this flower globe I noticed two tiny chartreuse caterpillars, and I saw that a couple of ants had noticed them, too. The ants ran up and down, often treading on and continuing over the little caterpillars, occasionally grabbing at them as if trying to pull them away. Perhaps the ants looked forward to a meal, or perhaps they were defending their territory. I don’t know enough about ant behavior to say, and although I watched and took pictures for a while, nothing conclusive happened. Eventually, say anticlimactically if you wish, I continued on my way.

UPDATE: See the explanatory comment below by Spider Joe Lapp.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 26, 2012 at 6:04 AM

24 Responses

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  1. Nature in action – I love it!!


    July 26, 2012 at 6:10 AM

  2. Wunderschön!!


    July 26, 2012 at 6:37 AM

  3. Isn’t that just the story of so much of life? “I came, I saw, I left….” 😉


    July 26, 2012 at 6:43 AM

  4. Steve,
    It does kind of leave you wondering, doesn’t it? Would the ants eventually attempt to eat those caterpillars? Were they really only interested in the flower, but those caterpillars were in the way? Hmmm. Perhaps someday you’ll come across a similar situation and witness a more conclusive ending 🙂


    July 26, 2012 at 7:07 AM

    • Either that or an entomologist who knows about such things will come to the rescue.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 26, 2012 at 8:00 AM

      • Always nice to have an answer, but often more intriguing to observe it for oneself!


        July 26, 2012 at 12:15 PM

      • Since I couldn’t draw a conclusion myself in this case, I’m grateful to Spider Joe for explaining what was going on. At other times I’ve been able to figure things out, and you’re right that that’s gratifying.

        Steve Schwartzman

        July 26, 2012 at 2:43 PM

  5. These are the caterpillars of a hairstreak butterfly, though I don’t know which hairstreak. The ants are “tending” or “farming” them. The caterpillar releases a sugary dew that the ants use, and in return the ants protect the caterpillars from predators. Ants are great protectors because many can bite and sting. I don’t know what kind of ants these are. According to Wagner’s book “Caterpillars of Eastern North America,” these caterpillars have a file that they can rub to make an alarm sound that calls the ants to help when they are in danger. Insect ecology is fabulous, no?

    • Thanks, Joe, for riding to the rescue once again. I was aware of ants herding various insects in return for their sweet secretions, but I didn’t know that caterpillars were among those insects.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 26, 2012 at 9:12 AM

  6. The colors are gorgeous!


    July 26, 2012 at 8:45 AM

  7. Love it–the shot is a juxtaposition of nature’s interdependence, Sally


    July 26, 2012 at 10:00 AM

  8. I read Spider Joe’s comment and find it amazing what small creatures can achieve… I have also seen a documentary (in German) where the plants seem to communicate with each other and insects such as ants if they are being attacked by predators. There is so much to learn!


    July 26, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    • I’ve seen that documentary or one like it. Yes, there’s always more to learn. Sometimes I wonder what people in the future will know and take for granted that we who are alive now don’t know.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 26, 2012 at 2:23 PM

  9. You gotta love how nature takes care of itself!

    Michael Glover

    July 26, 2012 at 2:16 PM

  10. Perfect balance in color and element, and with so much happening, really points out all the small things in nature we often overlook.

    Brandon Brasseaux

    July 29, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    • In such a vast world, we can only see so much. I’m grateful when I find one of these little dramas, but I always wonder how many more I missed.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 29, 2012 at 6:39 PM

  11. I thought you might enjoy this, from J. Evarts Greene’s “The Santa Fe Trade: Its Route and Character” (Press of Charles Hamilton, 1893)

    “Except for its lack of mountain and sea, a more beautiful and attractive landscape can scarcely be found anywhere, than that near the confluence of the Missouri and Kaw rivers. In the late spring or early summer, it is especially charming, when the grass on the prairie is fresh and sprinkled profusely with flowers of many hues…when the subtle sweetness of the sensitive brief, a species of mimosa, with its flowers like purple globes, sprinkled with gold-dust, entrance the senses.

    I’m supposing that the name “sensitive brief” might be rooted in the Latin brevis, which the dictionary tells me could refer to a “short, low, little, shallow” flower. I don’t think there’s any question he’s describing the same flower you show here.


    October 6, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    • Thanks for that find. I’ve collected some 19th-century accounts of the land as Anglo settlers in Texas or the Great Plains encountered it, but this one is new to me. My guess is that someone misread someone’s handwriting and “sensitive briar” mistakenly became “sensitive brief.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 6, 2013 at 4:29 PM

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