Rippling across the pavement in no apparent hurry was a chubby orange creature with a mission. Two large yellow eyespots decorated its hood, with blue markings masquerading as light reflections off the eyes. A black band completed the disguise, making the top of this caterpillar look like a menacing snake.
In reality it was a harmless swallowtail caterpillar, its tiny hooded head tucked under the fake head. But if disturbed, it takes the disguise one step further. Arching its upper body backward, the caterpillar unfurls its antennae, which look like a forked snake tongue, and releases a foul smell.
By night, the swallowtail caterpillar hides from predators inside leaves that it seals shut with its silk. By day, it is on the move, looking for mates, food, or anchors to attach itself to for pupating.
Another clever survival tactic–after they are done feeding on a leaf, they nibble it off at the stem and let it fall to the ground. Why this extra housekeeping step? Birds are on the lookout for chewed-up leaves as an indicator for the presence of caterpillars. By discarding the evidence, they can fool the bird.
The orange color of this swallowtail only emerges when the larvae is ready to form its chrysalis and pupate. In earlier stages it is green, to better blend in with leaves and grass.
The swallowtail caterpillar feeds on many of the native shrubs and trees in our eastern woods, such as the spicebush, the tulip tree, and the sassafras.
The adult eastern swallowtail sheds its caterpillar goofiness and emerges as the striking yellow, black, and blue butterfly we often see in our gardens and woods. If you would like to entice these beautiful creatures to your garden, plant natives such as jewelweed, thistles, milkweed, dogbane, lantana, or sweet pepperbush.