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Lasiocampidae in the wild
Lasiocampidae, also known as “lappet moths” is a family of moths with about 2000 described species. Adult Lasiocampidae moths have no functional mouth and not feed; for this reason they are short lived – the adults usually only live for a few days, or up to a few weeks. They are generally speaking medium sized moths, although it is hard to generalise them as they do show a lot of variation – the smallest Lasiocampidae can be very tiny, with wingspans of 20mm or less, while the largest of them may be suprisingly large with over 150mm wingspans. The caterpillars of Lasiocampidae are typically very hairy and well protected against predators and the elements. Their sides and backs can have very thick tufts of hair that help camouflage them and aid their thermoregulation. Many species also have modified splinter-like hairs that are very sharp to the touch and are in some cases coated with urticants. When touched, these splinters can embed themselves in the skin of predators and cause skin irritation, allergic reactions or painful burning sensations. In some cases the caterpillar show agressive behaviour and will purposely bash their heads or bodies into the skin of their enemies, which can be a quite painful experience, especially with the large tropical species. While other moths spend their time as diapausing eggs or cocoons when the conditions are unfavourable, Lasiocampidae do it as larvae in some cases. In Africa, caterpillars of Lasiocampidae can sometimes be found in the dry season, while you may find it hard to find caterpillars or moths of any other species at all. In the Palearctic ecozone, some Lasiocampidae species spend the winter as caterpillars. From drought to frost to heat or cold, it seems their larvae are good at surviving unfavourable conditions. Because of their thick layers or hair they can be well-isolated against the elements. Some species of Lasiocampidae have social caterpillars that form large groups that may defoliate trees and shrubbery – some of these social species may even spin communal, silken nests.
Lasiocampidae moths strongly rely on smell; the males have large feathered antennae that allow them to smell the females pheromone in order to locate her. Males have a much more active lifestyle and need to fly for miles in some cases to find a partner. For that reason their bodies are often better adapted for flight. Females of most Lasiocampidae species don’t fly much at all. They appear quite apathic and inactive and may sit in the same spot for days, waiting for a male to arrive. The females can emit pheromone, a chemical that attracts males. The job of the female is mainly to remain undiscovered and in a secure position, until a male finds her. Because females carry hundreds of eggs and are greater in size, flying is harder for them due to their increased bodymass. The females of some species can be so heavy that they struggle to fly at all. The males however are much more agile because they are smaller, have more aerodynamic, slender wings and bodies. In some cases males and females have a completely different colour (sexual dimorphism). It is only after having recieved the sperm of a male that the females become more active. In this case they will fly or wander around and start to lay eggs. Lasiocampidae protect their pupae by spinning silken cocoons; the silk is often thick and papery. In many cases the caterpillars will incorporate their sharp splinter like hairs into the silk to discourage predators from touching them – grabbing the cocoons of some types of Lasiocampidae can be a painful experience. Lasiocampidae are important defoliators and sources of food in many ecosystems.
Lasiocampidae in captivity
In culture, Lasiocampidae are considered to be of little or no value. Many Lasiocampidae populations show large fluctuations in their populations, and in peak years when the larvae are abundant, they may potentially defoliate food crops or other plants of economic value – and for this reason they are often regarded as pests. While some species have been collected for silk production (such as Gonometa), it seems that most Lasiocampidae are ineffective to reproduce in captivity for the purpose of silk production for a multitude of reasons – other moth families such as Bombycidae and Saturniidae seem to be easier to raise, have shorter and more reliable development times, produce better quality silk, are not covered with splinters and their larvae are edible (unlike Lasiocampidae, mainly because of the hair). The fact that their populations fluctuate also make them an unreliable source of income – in peak years they can be over abundant, but during the dips or ‘recession’ years it may be hard to find any individuals at all.
Did Lasiocampidae get the short end of the stick? Maybe not. The adults of Lasiocampidae are generally well known and generally speaking they are a ‘well-studied’ family, although they don’t seem to recieve as much attention as other moth families such as Saturniidae. The opposite is true for their ecology however; especially in the tropics, the host plants, ecology and life cycle of even the most common Lasiocampidae can be unknown. And here there may be one important gap to fill for the Lasiocampidae breeder: the fact remains that the ecology of the immature stages of many species remain undescribed. The important roles they play in many ecosystems have been recognised by many entomologists and biologists – but figuring them out may take some time, and potentially a lot of breeding.
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