Four O'clock Moth and Friends

Despite having a much wetter winter than is the norm for the tropics of Far North Queensland, we've had the 'normal' dry season visitors. Including the dazzling Ulysses butterfly and the intriguingly named four o'clock moths. Both feed on the Carallia brachiata plant sometimes called a freshwater mangrove but more commonly, and simply, known as a 'rainforest tree'.

We have a number of these plants scattered throughout the yard. None were deliberately planted, but were probably seeded by birds or perhaps rodents.

Interestingly, two species of Lepidoptera have taken up residence on two separate Carallia, growing just 2.5 m apart and yet it seems that neither species lays on the other's plant. And it isn't as simple as having a single adult laying on each plant as the instars of both are in varying stages of maturity, so there have been multiple eggs laid, presumably from different adults of each insect.

Noting that one plant is in shade for a greater proportion of the day than the other, my theory is that Dysphania fenestrata (a.k.a. Dysphania numana); or the four o'clock moth, prefers the shade. This is re-enforced by the fact that when pupating the Dysphania constructs a chamber by tying leaves together with silk, also the pupa itself has a casing vaguely reminiscent of the thin crinkly brown skin found on a husked peanut ... not very resistant to U.V at all, eh?

So shade along with a 'retreat' to prevent the insect drying out makes complete sense ... at least in my head.

Below are a series of pics comparing the two species from instar, pupa to adult. (click to enlarge)

Four O'clock moth caterpillar feeding on a rainforest plant

(Dysphania fenestrata)

Ulysses caterpillar on a different rainforest tree

(Papilio ulysses)

Four O'clock moth cocoon

(Dysphania fenestrata)

Ulysses cocoon

(Papilio ulysses)

Four O'clock moth with wings spread

(Dysphania fenestrata)

Side view of a Four O'clock moth

(Dysphania fenestrata)

Side view, Ulysses Butterfly

(Papilio ulysses)

Typically, for Papilionidae, the Ulysses instar has a striking defence mechanism. When disturbed they erect their osmeterium, which for all the world unfurl like twin light-sabres from the head of the insect and release a smell that some have described as pungent, but I disagree - to me the smell is sweet and a bit citrusy. The osmeterium of the Ulysses is vivid orange however, in an orchid swallowtail it's fluorescent pink.

The Dysphania is a member of the looper or Geometridae family of moth. The adjective looper describes the method of locomotion the instar or caterpillar uses when getting around. They first clasp the stem or leaf they're on with modified back legs that resemble a baseball glove, stretch their body out to gain purchase with a set of front legs and then draw their rear up towards the head creating a loop.

The boldly contrasting patterns of the adult give a clue to it's diurnal nature and is probably a warning to hungry predators that it wouldn't make a very tasty snack.

The instars seem to come in two colour variations of predominantly green or yellow and I wonder if this is due to the pigmentation for the leaves they feed on as the Carallia plant (at least at this time of year), has both green and yellow leaves ... something to ponder eh?

... enough pondering - on with the post:

The rainbow skinks are still plentiful and despite the fact that it's outside the breeding season they continue to engage in, what can only be described as an endless game of reptilian tag; chasing each other here and there with much tail twitching and manic head bobbing.

There never seems to be much damage done and I could easily be convinced that, as doubtful as it seems, they might very well be playing - who can say?.

Leaf-litter skink eating something unrecognisable.

Something unidentifiable but obviously quite delicious

Skink, poking its head out

Who's 'it'?

Skink basking in the garden

Just three of the numerous Carlia we have around the place

As for the frogs?

Well, with relatively cooler temps they're keeping pretty quiet, but there is a lovely white lip knocking around and this pensive common green tree frog turned up a while ago - we see other species on occasion; but for the most part the nights are still and maddeningly unfroggy ...

Green tree frog on a leaf, in the rain.

(Litoria caerulea)

Speaking of winter, these Australian welcome swallows are a common sight around the joint.

They tend to migrate north in the cooler months but can be seen at any time of year here and we currently have a couple who think nothing of zooming inside and taking a break on the ceiling fans.

They sit and chat away to both themselves and us (which can be a bit disconcerting if you've just stepped out of the shower ...).

Anyway - just this morning I had a list of things I wanted to get done, thus I was rooted to the spot staring at my coffee achieving exactly nothing when one of the swallows swooped down and settled on the brim of my cap. There's nothing quite like looking directly into the firing end of wild bird mere centimetres away to focus the mind, but before I could make any sort of decision regarding my course of action the bird flipped around so that now it was head down, gazing straight into my eyes.

He cocked his head first one way - then the other, and I swear to you, for just a moment - I was certain he was about to ask how my morning was going. He didn't (thank god) - he just flitted off - twittering away to his partner; presumably telling her that while I was definitely a bit daft, I was probably harmless ...

Welcome swallow perched at the door.

Welcome swallow (Hirundo neoxena)

Being pitied by a bird is, frankly, a little hard to take, but being completely ignored by one is damned near insufferable.

The laughing kookaburras are a law unto themselves around here and generally view the garden as a private larder - they'll eat snakes, lizards, birds (esp hatchlings), insects, frogs, scraps ... virtually anything they can grasp in their beaks and hammer into a suitable consistency for swallowing.

Like I said - they tend to ignore me, but should they deign to acknowledge my existence - they'll fix me with a steady, inquiring gaze; a small smirk playing about their beak. Leaving one with the unsettling suspicion that, should the frog supply get a bit low, you may very well fit the bill - so to speak.

It doesn't help that they laugh as you're walking away either ... (how does it go? - a 'murder of crows', a 'parliament of owls', a 'flight of swallows' etc ... well, I'd like to nominate a 'bastard of kookaburra's' as the name for that particular grouping of birds ...).

Laughing Kookaburra on the pool fence.

Laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae)

I kid ... mostly ...

Now for one of my most treasured garden companions of all time - a mantid.

This one is a juvenile, around 20-25 mm T.L. Size aside, I watched him rock and then leap through the twigs and leaves of his world for some time. Due to its immaturity, I'm afraid I can't be sure of the species, but I think it's another Giant Mantid that I've been lucky enough to photograph and post about previously.

Juv Giant mantid as the sun went down

Juv mantid in the dying light

And finally - a little pic of an even littler creature. The omnipresent dart butterfly. I have no idea how many times I have photographed these insects - but it's easily in the triple figures. Despite this - being common is NOT the same thing as being ordinary, (although people being a bit ordinary is pretty common).

Let's just enjoy the pic shall we?

Grass dart butterfly, looking at the camera

Dart Butterfly sp?

Till next time and as always, take care

The Lepidoptera (/ˌlɛpɨˈdɒptərə/ lep-i-dop-tər-ə) is an order of insects that includes moths and butterflies (both called lepidopterans). 180,000 species of Lepidoptera are described, in 126 families and 46 superfamilies, 10% of the total described species of living organisms. It is one of the most widespread and widely recognisable insect orders in the world, encompassing moths and the three super-families of butterflies, skipper butterflies, and moth-butterflies.

The term was coined by Linnaeus in 1735 and is derived from Ancient Greek λεπίδος (scale) and πτερόν (wing). The Lepidoptera show many variations of the basic body structure that have evolved to gain advantages in lifestyle and distribution. Recent estimates suggest the order may have more species than earlier thought, and is among the four most specious orders, along with the Hymenoptera, Diptera, and Coleoptera.


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