Video taken in South Carolina captured a sight that came as a surprise to viewers: A fuzzy caterpillar, sitting at a ledge, scrunches its little body together like a spring, and suddenly launches itself upward and out of frame.
“Did it hop? Wow!” one person commented on the video shared to Facebook.
“I thought the camera just adjusted,” another said. “Nope, that thing leaped!!”
“Omg! It’s beautiful and it has mad hops!” wrote a third.
Slow and famously hungry, caterpillars aren’t known for their feats of athleticism, but in reality some “are pretty damn muscular,” David Wagner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, told McClatchy News.
While many may not have witnessed a jumping caterpillar before, most also haven’t raised tens of thousands of caterpillars, like Wagner has.
“When they decide to throw themselves, they can really launch,” he said. “I think it’s more common than generally appreciated.”
The caterpillar seen in the video will one day become a white-marked tussock moth, if it doesn’t throw itself into an anthill first, or get picked off by a pigeon. White-marked tussock moth caterpillars are fine to look at but less fun to touch, as stinging hairs along its body can cause hives and rashes to the skin.
Generally speaking, jumping by caterpillars is rare, said professor Peter Adler of Clemson University’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.
“Only a small number of species routinely jump. The best known is the caterpillar that lives in Mexican jumping beans,” Adler told McClatchy News.
He’s collected a number of white-marked tussock caterpillars over the years, “but I’ve never seen one jump, as it did [in the video],” he said.
It’s possible the caterpillar was not in good health, Adler said, victim to an unwelcome guest.
“Perhaps that particular caterpillar was parasitized by a wasp or fly, and the movements of the larval parasite triggered the ‘jump,’” he said.
There’s no shortage of cruel fates in the animal kingdom, but Wagner doubts a parasite is to blame here.
“It looked like a fully fed, healthy caterpillar that was just unhappy with where it was,” Wagner said.
Caterpillars don’t want to jump, according to Wagner, or at least they prefer not to. It’s a risky move and they don’t really know where they’re going to end up.
“It’s kind of like launching yourself into the great unknown,” he said. “Generally, caterpillars like to hold their ground. But in dire times they’ll launch themselves and wish for the best.”
They’re most likely to take a leap of faith if they’re not in a good feeding spot, or if they sense they’re about to be eaten.
“It’s a great last-ditch effort,” Wagner said.
It’s also possible the white-marked tussock in the video was hoping to find a better place to build a cocoon, pupate, and later emerge as a moth, he said.