Cosmic caterpillars have spots on their back that look like eyes to scare off predators.
Cosmic Caterpillar Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- Eudocima phalonia
Cosmic Caterpillar Conservation Status
Cosmic Caterpillar Facts
Cosmic Caterpillar Physical Characteristics
- Dark Brown
Cosmic caterpillars are covered in white spots that look like stars in the night sky.
Cosmic Caterpillar Summary
The name “cosmic caterpillar” is a popular name for the larval stage of the fruit-piercing moth, Eudocima phalonia. The larva is brownish-to-black with tiny white spots all over, looking like stars in the night sky. Moreover, an even more startling effect are the two large black and white spots on each side looking like big “googly eyes” to confuse and scare off predators. Fruit-piercing moths are found in the tropics of Asia, Africa, and Australia as well as Hawaii (but not the continental United States). In their adult stage, they pierce the skins of 100 different species of fruit, including commercially valuable crops, allowing bacteria and fungi to enter and cause rot. Hence, they are one of the world’s greatest agricultural pests.
Cosmic Caterpillar Facts
- Cosmic caterpillars are the larval stage of the fruit-piercing moth.
- At the moth stage, females are larger than males and have different patterns on their wings.
- The species sucks juice from commercial fruit crops, making holes that cause rotten spots and costing farmers millions of dollars every year.
- Tiny trichogramma moths are parasitic on cosmic caterpillars and help control their population, but are not as effective after heavy rains and high winds.
- Moths are believed to have evolved first, then butterflies evolved from them. Moths are active at night and butterflies during the day.
Cosmic Caterpillar Scientific Name
Eudocima phalonia is the scientific name of the cosmic caterpillar and the fruit-piercing moth. Some of the past names it went by are Eudocima fullonia or Othreis fullonia. There has been some dispute among scientists about the classification of the 50 different species in this group.
Cosmic Caterpillar Appearance
Cosmic caterpillars are 2-3 inches long and can vary in color from brown to black. They have white speckles, an orange spot on the side of each segment of their bodies, and two eye spots on each side behind the thorax. They eat the leaves of the tree where they hatch, then form pupae that are a gleaming brown-black with a purplish cast.
At adulthood, male fruit-piercing moths have a wingspan of 3-4 inches. They have fawn-colored forewings and a pattern of pale and dark patches. Females have a 3.5-4.3 inch wingspan. They have a small white triangle at the middle of each forewing and a pale streak across the wing. Males and females have bright yellow hindwings with a dark border and a dark comma shape in the middle. Adult fruit-piercing moths feed on fruit rather than leaves.
Cosmic Caterpillar Evolution and History
Both butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, which means “scale wings” in Greek. The earliest representatives of this group date to about 300 million years ago (the Late Carboniferous period). Researchers think they evolved the proboscis (a tube-like tongue for drinking nectar) about 241 million years ago (the Middle Triassic period). Moths likely evolved first, then butterflies developed as the daytime version of them. As a result, the evolutionary path of butterflies led to them having brilliant colors and patterns like the flowers they fed on.
On the other hand, scientists speculated that moths developed hearing organs to help them avoid bats, but other research has shown that various lineages of moths developed that sense before bats evolved. Both butterflies and moths have symbiotic relationships with plants that provide food for the insects and help plants pollinate and reproduce.
Cosmic Caterpillar Behavior
An interesting behavior of the cosmic caterpillar is that when it is threatened, it curls its head down and its tail up, making the eye spots more prominent. Furthermore, the way it holds its legs to its abdomen sometimes creates the visual effect of a mouth. All of this makes it look like a larger and potentially more dangerous creature that will confuse and ward off predators.
Cosmic Caterpillar Habitat
Eudocima phalonia ranges from the tropical rainforests of West, Central, and Southern Africa to the Indian subcontinent, China, and Southeast Asia, to Australia and the Pacific Islands. It has been detected in Hawaii and is considered a potential threat to the continental United States, so border control monitors carefully for it. It lives in tropical climates where it can find the fruit it requires for its diet.
Cosmic Caterpillar Diet
Eudocima phalonia feeds on the coral tree and several types of vines, like the prickly tape vine, round leaf vine, and pearl vine. Moreover, it eats about 100 different types of fruit. These include commercially valuable crops such as apples, tomatoes, citrus fruit, kiwi, mango, banana, melon, guava, or papaya. The moth pierces the fruit with its proboscis to suck out the juice. Consequently, this leaves a hole for bacteria and fungi to enter. As a result, a rotten spot develops on the fruit which makes it unmarketable.
Cosmic Caterpillar Predators and Threats
Any sort of bird, reptile, amphibian, or small mammal may feast on cosmic caterpillars and their pupa and imagos. The creature’s arch-nemesis, though is trichogramma, a tiny parasitic wasp. After periods of heavy rain and high winds, the trichogramma population drops. Consequently, it takes a few weeks to build up its numbers again. Human beings are the most systematic threat to the whole species. Farmers use a variety of baits and pesticides to try to control their population. They are so numerous and reproduce so quickly, though, there is no prospect of fully eradicating them.
Cosmic Caterpillar Reproduction and Life Cycle
Eudocima fullonia develops through four stages: larva, pupa and adult. The whole process takes anywhere from 30-60 days, influenced by weather conditions. Mothers lay pale yellow eggs on the leaves of favored trees. Next, the larvae hatch and eat the leaves of the tree. When this stage of development is complete, create a cocoon and enter the pupa stage. Once metamorphosis is complete, adult moths begin feeding on fruit and mating to produce the next generation. Finally, their lives end about 70 days after birth.
Cosmic Caterpillar Population
There are about 180,000 species of Lepidoptera. Of these, 89-94 percent are moths and the remainder are butterflies. There are about 50 species of the genus Eudocima. The exact numbers are unknown but are certainly in the hundreds of millions or billions.
In recent years moths in general have been in decline in many parts of the world due to loss of habitat, predators, climate change, pesticides, and light pollution from spreading urbanization. These factors particularly affect species that have limited ranges and very specific requirements for their diet and habitat. By contrast, Eudocima fulloni has a vast range spreading over at least three continents and a nearly unlimited food supply. They are in no danger of extinction, even with determined efforts to eradicate them in agricultural areas.
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Cosmic Caterpillar FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What species is the cosmic caterpillar?
The name “cosmic caterpillar” is a popular name for the larval stage of the fruit-piercing moth, Eudocima phalonia.
What does the cosmic caterpillar eat?
Eudocima phalonia feeds on the coral tree and several types of vines, like the prickly tape vine, round leaf vine, and pearl vine. Moreover, it eats about 100 different types of fruit. These include commercially valuable crops such as apples, tomatoes, citrus fruit, kiwi, mango, banana, melon, guava, or papaya. The caterpillar eats the leaves and the mature moth eats the fruit.
Where does the cosmic caterpillar live?
Eudocima phalonia lives in the tropical rainforests of Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, China, Australia, and Hawaii.
Where in the United States do fruit-eating moths live?
Eudocima phalonia has been discovered in Hawaii but not in the continental United States.
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- Insects, Available here: https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4450/12/2/117
- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudocima_phalonia
- USDA, Available here: https://idtools.org/pdfs/high/Eudocima_phalonia_high.pdf
- Texas Invasive Species Institute, Available here: http://www.tsusinvasives.org/home/database/eudocima-phalonia
- ZooKeys, Available here: https://zookeys.pensoft.net/article/50709/