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Sawfly Larvae 8773

I’d never seen a purple caterpillar,
I never thought I’d see one,
But now I’ll stand atop a theater pillar
And proclaim that there really can be one.*

Okay, sources say these sawfly larvae (of indeterminate genus) aren’t truly caterpillars, but let’s not quibble over the word. The critters were having a good time on an Indian mallow plant, Abutilon fruticosum, that I’d stopped to photograph on June 25th in the greenbelt off Taylor Draper Cove. The colors in the background came from a flowering Gaillardia pulchella, known as firewheel, blanketflower, and Indian blanket. In particular, notice how the most prominent red head of one of the sawfly larvae is color-coordinated with the center of the firewheel.

UPDATE: This sawfly has been identified as Neoptilia tora. If you follow that link you can see what an adult looks like. As entomologist Mike Quinn explained in an e-mail on August 17: “Long story short, Dan Hardy, of Austin, reared some purple larvae he collected back in 2007 and sent an adult to Texas A&M University. Some years later, David R. Smith, the sawfly expert from the Smithsonian, visited the TAMU Insect Collection and ID’ed Dan’s specimen. Yesterday, Ed Riley and I looked for and found Dan’s spmn.”


* You may recognize this as a parody of Gelett Burgess’s “Purple Cow.” If you’re not sure what a theater pillar is, neither am I.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 14, 2015 at 5:14 AM

49 Responses

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  1. Rather a lot of feet in this trough. Were all the other leaves already consumed?


    August 14, 2015 at 5:30 AM

    • No, the other leaves hadn’t been consumed, and I didn’t initially see the larvae because those leaves partly blocked them from view. At some point a bit of purple caught my attention and I investigated.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2015 at 5:35 AM

      • I guess they just like to eat together then.


        August 14, 2015 at 6:22 AM

        • Most likely the adult female had laid a bunch of eggs in the same place and they hatched at about the same time. The larvae would then have taken the path of least resistance and started eating whatever was close at hand.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 14, 2015 at 6:33 AM

  2. I wondered if I’d been partaking of too much herbal tea when I first saw this pic. I’ve never seen caterpillars (or caterpillar-like critters) that are this colour until now. It’s not April Fool’s Day, so I suppose you aren’t playing a joke on us. The red and yellow smudges behind and the green foliage contrast with it so well. Nice one, Steve!


    August 14, 2015 at 6:17 AM

    • I found the firewheel in the background an especially nice way of setting off the rich and contrasting color of the larvae. How considerate of the firewheel to have planted itself (and the larvae to have posed themselves) there and waited for me to come along.

      As for herbal tea, I have to wonder what sort it might be that could produce the vision you first thought you were having.

      The idea of playing a joke here never occurred to me, but you’re right that with photo-editing software someone could easily change one color in a photograph to another.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2015 at 6:30 AM

  3. Die sehen ja schön aus, solche habe ich noch nie gesehen.

    LG Mathilda ❤


    August 14, 2015 at 7:10 AM

  4. I confess to being astounded by this one. My first thought was, “What?” My second thought was something like, “What in the world?”

    I did find that the very young larvae are green, and not particularly noticeable. It’s the older ones that turn purple — and it may be that the red head that’s so attractive here is a sign of a really mature larva. In any case, Gallivanta was right. An article from the Austin butterfly forum says that they like to feed communally, which these certainly are doing.

    If you hadn’t seen these, I’m not sure I would have believed them. Wonderful photo.


    August 14, 2015 at 7:50 AM

    • Thanks for the link to that article by Val Bugh, who is a local insect expert, and whom I know. I hadn’t seen the article when I coincidentally asked her in June about these purple larvae. She said they still haven’t been identified, not even to the genus level.

      I’d gone 15 years before seeing any of these, so who knows if I will again. I’m glad to have gotten pictures when I did and to be able to show all of you these garish creatures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2015 at 8:03 AM

  5. Are you sure these aren’t grey? 😀


    August 14, 2015 at 8:00 AM

  6. I haven’t ever seen this either~what a surprise!


    August 14, 2015 at 8:56 AM

  7. Absolutely, other-worldly, outrageous coloration, worthy of any imaginable herbal infusion. Peter Max and Andy Warhol would have been proud of you.


    August 14, 2015 at 9:29 AM

    • All I did was record what I saw. It’s the larvae that did the outrageous purple thing. On the other hand, if you could send me a share of the money that those two artists have earned, I’d be much obliged.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2015 at 12:46 PM

  8. What a cool photo. Are the adults as vibrant??


    August 14, 2015 at 10:14 AM

    • I don’t know, Nora. I’ve never knowingly seen an adult of these, and the larvae remain unidentified as to species and even genus.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2015 at 12:46 PM

    • Check out the update I’ve just added near the end of the post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 16, 2015 at 1:10 PM

  9. I haven’t seen these before either. They have a reputation for destroying large quantities of crops. One of nature’s well-adapted creatures. It happens all the time.

    Jim in IA

    August 14, 2015 at 11:00 AM

    • This (unidentified) species eats Indian mallow and velvetleaf mallow, so unless a crop was in that botanical family it would probably be safe. There are many other genera of sawflies, and I see online that some do indeed prey on commercial crops, as you pointed out.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2015 at 4:47 PM

  10. First, ewww but then awe for this amazing critter. What colors for one we’d think a pest, no? I like this far better that yesterday’s grackle 😀

    Sammy D.

    August 14, 2015 at 1:16 PM

    • I’ve heard of ooh and ah but yours is the first ewww and awe I’ve encountered. I’m glad you find this an improvement from yesterday’s grackle (which still has its good points).

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2015 at 4:51 PM

  11. Wow, kind of ugly and beautiful at the same time.


    August 14, 2015 at 3:27 PM

  12. Amazing fellows those purple worms! Great photo.


    August 15, 2015 at 1:41 PM

  13. they are beautiful !


    August 15, 2015 at 4:11 PM

  14. Such a rich, deep purple. Isn’t nature wonderful. Thanks for sharing, and I love the poem you added.

    Rhonda Albom

    August 15, 2015 at 6:21 PM

    • Thanks for your appreciation, Rhonda, of the image and the words. Yes, I find a lot to enjoy and record in nature.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2015 at 8:25 PM

  15. I was just listening to “White Rabbit” and then I come here and see purple larvae.

    The closest I could find was this mallow sawfly larva but BG.N doesn’t seem to list it. Several Texas posts of these so maybe very localized.

    Steve Gingold

    August 15, 2015 at 6:53 PM

    • Thanks for that link, which is the closest I’ve come to an identification. The story I got was that some of our local entomologists tried to pin down the Austin larvae but couldn’t confirm even the genus.

      So you’re still listening to “White Rabbit” after four dozen years. It seems you’ve managed to keep (and also feed) your head.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2015 at 8:30 PM

    • I just heard back from one of our local experts, who says that the identification of the purple larvae at that link is incorrect.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2015 at 11:23 PM

  16. Fantastic!! I really love this one. Purple and orange are great color pals. And you know how I feel about little buggie wuggies.


    August 16, 2015 at 11:10 AM

    • I like your description of purple and orange as “great color pals.” I did a search for that phrase just now and got only four distinct hits, so you’re close to being unique. Colors aside, I do know how fond you are of “little buggie wuggies,” so this picture must have made your morning.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 16, 2015 at 11:39 AM

  17. All the soft colours make this a really stunning photo.

    Emily Scott

    August 16, 2015 at 11:28 AM

    • I felt fortunate that the firewheel was growing close enough behind the mallow that I could find a vantage point that lined up the larvae with the (mostly) contrasting colors of the flower head.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 16, 2015 at 11:41 AM

  18. […] down the identity of the purple sawfly larvae you saw here a few days ago. If you go back to that post, near the end you’ll find the identity and a link to what an adult looks like (and see how […]

  19. I just looked at the added link, and was interested to see that the adult maintains some of that remarkable purple. It did take a few seconds to identify the strange protuberance that seemed to have developed. Then, I figured it out: more than an identification had been pinned down.


    August 17, 2015 at 5:33 AM

    • I found that large pin disconcerting, but I guess that’s how entomologists do pin their specimens down.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 17, 2015 at 8:13 AM

  20. Incredible color! And they look so beautiful against the muted soft background with just the right colors. Thanks for the link – this stage looks much more spectacular than the adult, though, don’t you think?

    Birder's Journey

    August 17, 2015 at 7:14 AM

    • I agree. The adult doesn’t do much for me, but the larvae are wonderfully colored intrinsically and appear even more so in contrast to the firewheel that had the good fortune (as a photographer interprets such things) to be behind them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 17, 2015 at 8:16 AM

  21. cool!


    September 23, 2015 at 9:54 AM

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