Here are four anterior close-ups Pyractomena borealis. The telescoping head allows the larva to inject (via curved, hollow mandibles) a numbing agent into snails that have retreated inside their shells. The antennae and maxillae are also partially retractable. When a larva is done feeding on a snail (or slug or earthworm) it will de-slime all of these parts with the hooked, fingerlike projections of the holdfast organ (pygopod) located on the last abdominal segment. The head is also fully retractible (see previous post). These larvae are extremely active, so really hard to photograph.
Pyractomena borealis (Lampyridae) exploring the surface of trees on a warm winter day in February. The third photograph shows how they can retract their head under the carapace like a turtle. At first I thought they might be foraging — they are highly predaceous, and hunt slugs and earthworms (in packs!) by first injecting them with paralytics. But they might have just been looking for a place to pupate, because it’s time for that. Adults will emerge sometime in early Spring to be the first fireflies in the area. The larvae are bioluminescent, too. The hypothesis about why the larvae glow is that it evolved first as an aposematic trait in larvae, warning mice and toads of the presence of lucibufagins, steroidal toxins in the hemolymph. It’s thought that the adult habit of using flashes is secondarily evolved, millions of years after the larvae evolved the ability to glow. The ability of larvae to glow even predates the origin of the Lampyridae, I gather. For more enlightening details, see Branham and Wezel (2003), Stanger-Hall et al. (2007), and Martin et al. 2017.
Found two of these caterpillars on blackberry last week. I really should have brought them back home to see if they would eat morning glory leaves. Apparently they hate morning glory despite being named Schizura ipomoea (and thus traditionally called a morning glory prominent). Also sometimes referred to as the false unicorn prominent. You can distinguish the checkered-fringe from the unicorn prominent (Schizura unicornis) on the basis of head striping (among other differences). But don’t handle them during the identification process: they spray mixture of formic and acetic acid from that dorsal horn on abdominal segment one, and that will hurt and make your skin blister.
According to one study, these caterpillars coat the tissues of freshly-girdled tree stems with fluid. The authors guess that the fluid contains something that blocks the de novo production of chemical defenses in the leaves. This “chew and spit” behavior seems to be common in the family (Notodontidae). More details and papers on the behavior at David Dussourd’s website.