Ghost Flowers! Earthstars! Hickory Horned Devils! ... And More Weird and Wonderful Oddities of Nature

Don't fear these oddities of nature. Hickory horned devils (a caterpillar), Earthstars (a fungus), and ghost flowers all have their niche.

| October/November 2010

Not everything we encounter in nature is familiar — or even seemingly of this Earth. Here are a few oddities of nature — mystifying, sometimes startling creatures that may well make you stop, scratch your head, and wonder: What the heck is that? 

Devilish Royalty

Go for a walk in the woods anywhere in the United States east of the Great Plains, and with luck — either good or bad, depending on your fright threshold — you may encounter the devil, specifically the hickory horned devil, surely our most fearsome-looking caterpillar. It’s the larva of the royal walnut (or regal) moth, one of about 70 species of wild silkworm moths that inhabit our continent north of Mexico. Most silkworm caterpillars are large and bear odd, fleshy bumps, nubs, and/or bristles. But for sheer intimidation power, nothing beats the hickory horned devil.

When mature, the caterpillar is huge — 5 to 6 inches long and almost three-quarters of an inch in diameter, roughly the size of a frankfurter. Its fleshy body is sometimes brown but is usually green to deep aqua blue, with white and black patterns along its sides. Most startling are the pairs of long, pointed, black-tipped orange horns that curve backward over its head. Short, black spines bristle along the rest of the caterpillar.

Add to this the hickory horned devil’s habit of thrashing wildly from side to side if disturbed, and there’s little wonder why humans hesitate to pick one up. Some caterpillars possess urticating hairs that release an irritating toxin, much like that released by stinging nettle plants. But the hickory horned devil, despite its appearance, is harmless.

Life for the hickory horned devil begins when an adult female moth lays one to three eggs on a food plant, such as hickory or black walnut. Six to 10 days later, the eggs hatch into half-inch-long caterpillars, already bearing horns and spines. Over the next month, each voracious, leaf-eating larva sheds its skin four times to accommodate its ballooning body. Just before pupating, a mature hickory horned devil bores into soil, creating an underground chamber. There it will remain until it emerges in late summer as an adult. Robed in velvety, 4- to 6-inch-wide, gray-and-red-striped wings with vivid yellow spots, its names “regal” and “royal” are fitting, its transformation from beast to beauty truly majestic.

Monster Mole

From its beady eyes to its scaly tail, the star-nosed mole sports the same neckless, streamlined body that makes all moles champion miners. Using long-clawed, spade-shaped forepaws to scoop dirt backward while pushing forward with rear feet, moles can tunnel through soil at up to a foot per minute. The star-nosed shares other traits, too: It is nearly blind, active night and day, and gobbles worms and grubs.

11/8/2014 11:05:54 AM

The hickory horned devil I found last year was a brighter green that the one in the photo.

10/29/2014 3:10:06 PM

The "earth star" is also there ... along with seven other images.

10/29/2014 3:08:53 PM

Try clicking on the turquoise "Slideshow" button on the right of the initial photo. The star-nosed mole is the third image, I think.

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