Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Did you notice?

with 45 comments

Camouflaged Larva on Maximilian Sunflower 8168

I took this picture of yummy yellow Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) on still-undeveloped land at the west end of Mocha Trail in far north Austin on October 20.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The question posed by this post’s title refers to the well-camouflaged little caterpillar hanging out between the lower part of the Maximilian’s disk flowers and several ray flowers, one of which you may have also noticed has been nibbled on an edge. The good folks at bugguide.net have tentatively identified the larva as being from a moth in the genus Stiria (if you follow that link, you can have a much closer look at the caterpillar on this sunflower).

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 3, 2015 at 4:45 AM

45 Responses

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  1. Yes, I did…but I thought the Maximilian had just grown a mustachio.

    Steve Gingold

    November 3, 2015 at 5:15 AM

    • Maybe I primed you to see it that way by showing the recent photo of Clematis drummondii, known as old man’s beard.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2015 at 5:49 AM

      • Possibly, but buried somewhere deep in my imagined subconscious is a joke about a caterpillar mustache.

        Steve Gingold

        November 3, 2015 at 6:00 AM

  2. That is extremely good camouflage! I really didn’t find him for a while.


    November 3, 2015 at 6:20 AM

    • Out in the field I couldn’t originally tell anything was there. I’m glad I finally noticed.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2015 at 6:58 AM

  3. What a great caterpillar! This plant must be their main food source for them to have developed such clever camouflage.

    • I think you’re on the right track. Most websites that I looked at said that the host plants of Stiria moths are unknown, but one site had this: “Larvae have been found on the sunflower Helianthus microcephalus in Ohio (Poole, 1995), and native sunflowers are the probable host in Alberta.” This finding on a Maximilian sunflower is further evidence for that conjecture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2015 at 9:39 AM

      • Most caterpillars either camouflage with their main food source or they have warning colours and hairs to deter predators. Moth larvae are often the most interesting 🙂 You’ll have to really look out for this one on the wild sunflowers in the future! If you found a lot of them you could add to the data they have on the species 🙂

        • I’ve come to realize that with the huge number of insect species out there, entomologists still don’t know much about many of them, and I imagine biologists would welcome any data that people can contribute. As you say, moth larvae can be more interesting than butterfly larvae, and there are many more species of moths than butterflies.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 3, 2015 at 4:26 PM

          • There are indeed! Autumn is a good time for finding moth larvae too 🙂 I haven’t been out in the right areas to see many this year but lots of interesting beasties have been posted to twitter on the various UK Wildlife Trust pages. The UK Butterfly Conservation society actually has an app for monitoring now so it’s easy for people to record sightings, with an image if possible, and accurate GPS data!

            • That’s a good use of modern technology.

              Steve Schwartzman

              November 3, 2015 at 5:26 PM

              • I’m hoping some more wildlife trusts can do something similar! It will be great for putting data together to make reports and recommendations to government, both locally and nationally! Our greenbelt is under constant threat from construction so really good data about the endangered fauna and flora of specific areas can be really important when planning applications are made to councils! For decades it’s been down to volunteers from the trusts to collect data but now everyone can be involved 🙂

                • That sounds like an example of people power (now increasingly called crowdsourcing).

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 3, 2015 at 5:48 PM

                • There’s a whole generation or so out there who have been dreadfully let down by parents and schools when it comes to the environment. Hopefully this is a step in the right direction for educating and empowering future generations growing up with tech at the centre of our lives!

                • Speaking of technology, when I went on a field trip a couple of weeks ago with Dr. Norma Fowler, professor of biology at the University of Texas, she said that no matter how many years pass, botanists keep getting told by genetic researchers that bar code DNA scanning of plants is just five years away. That technology has persistently eluded scientists.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 3, 2015 at 8:31 PM

                • I decided to look up some info on this and the Telegraph Newspaper wrote a big article in 2008 saying that scientists were very close to making it happen! It would be absolutely brilliant in terms of mapping wildflowers in different environments to look for good wildlife corridors as well as conservation of the plant species themselves! Here’s hoping they do eventually get it up and running.

                • For years I’ve been fantasizing about a little portable scanner I could use out in nature to identify a plant I’m not familiar with. I don’t think that will come to pass in my lifetime, but I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised. Notice that it’s already been seven years since that Telegraph article you found.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 4, 2015 at 10:29 PM

                • Exactly!! I don’t know exactly what the difficulties are as it seemed that the tech was all pretty much ready. The one thing is of course you need to put a sample of the plant into the scanner to process the dna so perhaps it’s to do with how long that takes to process in the field?

                • I’ve not read anything about the technical problems involved, so I don’t know what keeps delaying the project. For a scanner to be useful, every species in an area would have to be identified and its DNA signature put into a database.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 5, 2015 at 11:08 AM

                • A lot of scientists talk about having an almost complete database for plant dna but I can’t believe they really do!!

                • I can’t believe they really do either.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 5, 2015 at 2:14 PM

  4. ¡Qué maravilla! es realmente una foto magnífica, Steve.
    Por cierto ¿eres biólogo?

  5. That is some camouflage! I had to look twice.


    November 3, 2015 at 9:41 AM

    • The same thing happened to me when I was out in the field. The pretty flower heads in bright sunlight against the blue sky attracted me, and only after a while did I notice the little caterpillar.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2015 at 9:43 AM

  6. Yes! Like Steve, I saw it right away but thought it was a mustache…(“how embarrassing for that poor Max”) . A new caterpillar for me to look for when I’m out in the field. What fun.


    November 3, 2015 at 9:50 AM

    • First Steve and then you: is there a mustache fetish that I don’t know about? Or, since you describe the situation as embarrassing for poor Max, maybe for you it’s an anti-mustache attitude. In any case, I don’t recall ever seeing a little yellow caterpillar like this, but let us know if you ever come across one. Better yet, you could include it in a painting.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2015 at 10:05 AM

  7. I didn’t see it at first, but then again it is the early hours for me but stunning camouflage. I find it amazing to see how the insect larvae have adapted over time to aid survival.

    Raewyn's Photos

    November 3, 2015 at 11:45 AM

    • It just occurred to me that maybe I should have said nothing about the little caterpillar today. That way we could have waited to see if anyone mentioned it. If not, I could have pointed it out in tomorrow’s post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2015 at 11:53 AM

  8. I didn’t see it! That is awesome that he was there for you. Such a little fuzzy gift.


    November 3, 2015 at 4:47 PM

    • You’re the first person who’s admitted to not seeing it, but there must be others. As I’ve mentioned on other occasions, for each thing I see, I assume I miss many more.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2015 at 5:29 PM

  9. The Maximilians are so beautiful. I did notice the caterpillar, but until I read on, I thought it was a mutation in the sunflower. That itself is a testament to the spiffy little caterpillar’s camouflage, although my encounter with mutated sunflowers probably contributed.

    BugGuide seems to be a great site. i need to get over there and see if I can ID something that’s been crawling around here recently. It looks for all the world like a cross between a caterpillar and an Engilsh sheep dog. It’s so furry, you can’t see its feet. I’ve never seen anything so soft and fuzzy — or so slow. It seems to move at about three inches per hour.

    I finally overcame my shyness and posted the photos of the strange goldenrod on the NPSOT-NPAT site. The short answer is: galls. I’ll post the links later in the goldenrod thread, including a photo of the larva from the venerable BugGuide.


    November 3, 2015 at 6:05 PM

    • I was taken with these gorgeous Maximilians even before I noticed the camouflaged caterpillar, which I had to look at for a while before I realized what it was.

      It’s easy to sign up with BugGulde.net, and then you can submit photos of your unknown critters. I’ve done so from time to time and have usually gotten an identification, at least to the genus, in short order.

      If those little globes on the goldenrod turn out to be galls I’ll certainly be surprised, but then I’m often surprised by the things I didn’t know.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2015 at 8:40 PM

      • Here’s my fuzzy little darling: the caterpillar known as Megalopyge opercularis, also known as an asp, or flannel moth. I accidentally got a little too close to one an hour ago, and can attest to the truth of what the article says about their effects. Here’s another, more amusing article that makes the same point: stay away, or be very careful.

        I don’t remember ever seeing these, but they seem to be thick this year: at least on a metal post where I park and get out of my car, and on the surrounding live oaks. I believe the crew on the post might get relocated.


        November 4, 2015 at 2:13 PM

        • That’s a new one for me, too, and I hope to keep a few inches away if I ever encounter one. I’m already getting enough dermal damage from fire ants without needing any urticating moth hairs. The closest thing I can think of in a local native plant is bull nettle, which I’ve fortunately never run afoul of.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 4, 2015 at 4:18 PM

  10. Hey Steve .. it sure is yummy and that caterpillar is amazingly well hidden. 😀


    November 4, 2015 at 1:48 PM

    • Hi, Julie. The caterpillar is hidden, but I’m glad you’re not hiding the way you feel chummy about the flowers being yummy.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 4, 2015 at 2:11 PM

  11. I’m glad you pointed out the caterpillar as my old eyes just saw it as part of the plant – maybe a deformity of some kind. An excellent find, Steve. A yummy yellow cafe for a hungry sneaky critter.


    November 5, 2015 at 5:54 AM

    • I’m with you in thinking that the caterpillar could pass for a deformity in the flower head, as there are plenty of deformities out there in nature, and I often see one sort or another when I’m out photographing.

      Now you’ll have to use your phrase and open a restaurant called The Yummy Yellow Cafe. You can even decorate it with sunflowers (but probably not camouflaged caterpillars).

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 5, 2015 at 7:28 AM

  12. […] recently saw — or initially didn’t see — a caterpillar well camouflaged on a Maximilian sunflower. Here a much larger animal, a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) that I estimate was a good […]

  13. Even with your prompt, I did a double-take to spot that caterpillar. Is it chameleon-like, or is that its sole color?

    Susan Scheid

    November 10, 2015 at 6:00 PM

    • So you’re saying that even after my prompt your recognition wasn’t prompt.

      In answer to your question, I looked at


      and saw that some caterpillars in this genus appear in different colors from the yellow of the one I photographed. Unfortunately I don’t know whether each of those caterpillars stays relatively constant in its colors or can change them, nor do I know if the caterpillar I photographed behaves like its genus mates. I also don’t know how much entomologists know about this genus. My impression is that large parts of the insect world remain largely unknown.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 10, 2015 at 6:37 PM

  14. I had to click the link to be certain I really identified the caterpillar on the flower. How amazing it is to see colour at work in nature 🙂

    My Small Surrenders

    December 11, 2015 at 9:41 AM

    • Yes, this was an excellent example of color camouflage. I could easily have missed it; in fact I originally did, but fortunately I eventually saw it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 11, 2015 at 10:02 AM

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