Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Papaipema cerina

Papaipema cerina (Photo by Ron Panzer)

Pablo and Dave have both recently posted pictures of Mayapples on their blogs. The photos triggered this memory.

Ron Panzer is my mentor in all things involving entomology on natural areas in Illinois. Sometime in the winter of 1990-1991, Ron mentioned to me that I should keep an eye on Mayapple plants while I was out and about. He was working with moths in the genus Papaipema (pa-puh-PEEM-uh). These are stem borers, and very fastidious about their host plants. Many species that are used are characteristic prairie and savanna plants, and so the moths are of interest. P. cerina uses Mayapples. Ron had been searching for this species unsuccessfully for a long time, and wanted to get some other folks out looking for it.

Fast-forward just a few months. Steve Packard, my mentor in all things involving ecological restoration, wanted Leon and I to take a look at a small plot of woodlot a couple of miles north of Bluff Spring Fen. The woodlot was slated for development, and he wondered if there was anything worthy of plant rescue.

Mayapple clone. Photo from the University of Southern Indiana website.

Memorial day weekend of 1991, several of the Fen volunteers stopped by the woodlot. It had a really nice plant community, and we did, in fact, do some plant rescue that included sharp-lobed hepatica and white trillium. There were lots of Mayapple clones on the site. I noticed several yellow or brown plants scattered in the clones of healthy green plants. I took my pocketknife and cut one off at the base. There was a small round hole about an inch from the bottom. I very carefully slit the stem open and found a stripy caterpillar inside.

I called Ron that evening. His first response was to get mildly upset. “I’ve been looking for that moth for ten years. What do you mean you found it the very first time you went out looking?” He came over the very next afternoon, and agreed that it was a Papaipema larva. We decided to rear up a half dozen caterpillars to confirm that it was indeed P. cerina.

Papaipema larva in a drilled carrot. This is not P. cerina, but a different species of Papaipema. P. cerina is striped from end to end, and does not have the unstriped brown band.
Photo by Ron Panzer.

Rearing Papaipema is fun. Ron worked this technique out with P. eryngii, a species that was thought to be extinct until he re-discovered it. It feeds on rattlesnake master, which is in the carrot family. Ron began using carrots to rear the moths on. He’d drill a hole down the length of the carrot and coax the caterpillar inside. Coaxing a caterpillar inside of a carrot turns out to be as hard as it sounds. The technique worked with multiple species in the genus, including cerina.

I spent the summer of 2001 feeding carrots to the larvae. When the adults emerged in September, we confirmed that they were indeed cerina. That winter, we applied for, and received, permission to translocate the species from the woodlot to Bluff Spring Fen. The whole project was described nicely in the chapter Transanimaling in the charming book Hunting for Frogs on Ellston by the late Jerry Sullivan. We are still able to find damaged Mayapples at Bluff Spring Fen, so the new population lives on. It’s a good thing, too. The woodlot is now a housing development.

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At 10:23, Blogger robin andrea said...

What a great story, doug. I love when a memory like this is inspired by seeing or hearing about a Mayapple. Beautiful moth too!

At 16:49, Blogger Dave Coulter said...

doug - Thanks for posting this up. I will surely keep an eye out for off-looking mayapples over in Thatcher!

So...if I find a caterpilar I have to feed it carrots?!

BTW, you've had some GOOD mentors. man....

At 21:25, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Robin- Thanks. All of this happened before my current job, and was done strictly on a volunteer basis.

Dave- I agree about the mentors 100% You probably know better than most of my readers just how awesome my mentors are.

At 21:57, Blogger Ur-spo said...

that was a lovely story; but the ending was sad.

At 23:32, Blogger Jim Lemire said...

Is P. cerina found on Mayapples throughout their (mayapples) range? might I find some of these caterpillars here in Mass.? Are mayapples their only host?

At 04:30, Blogger Dr. Know said...

Having performed similar "life cycle studies" myself, I must say that this is an impressive work of dedication. We have a similar looking moth in this area (don't even ask me the latin name at the moment) but I never considered that May Apples were it's food source (much is seemingly unknown about the more mundane nocturnal lepidoptera). I have done the "wild life and native plants rescue" thing, and probably have a more diverse population of local botanical specimens in the back yard than anywhere else in the metro area. And I patiently wait for the Paw Paw's to grow to a suitable size to host the Zebra Swallowtail larva (Graphium... Oops, Eurytides marcellus) - but I just don't think I'm gonna make it 'till they reach maturity.

Anyway, Kudos on the intellectual and scientific dedication!

At 05:44, Blogger cedrorum said...

Maybe I need to have you come down and look for piping plover nests on a particular barrier island. I can't remember seeing mayapple in these parts. I like how it looks like miniature trees hovering over the forest floor in your pictures. Too bad that area became developed; it's a sign of the times I guess

At 06:34, Blogger Texas Travelers said...

I grew up in East Texas, 10 miles north of Paris, Tx. We were three miles from the Red River on a brown sandy soil. I used to see Mayapples there as a child when roaming the woods. I always enjoyed seeing them.

This is a really good article. My Dad was a Biology teacher with a Masters Degree in Biology. He used to say I asked to many questions, then smile, and give me more information than I was looking for. I have always been thankful for those extra lessons in biology and the outdoors. My Dad was a conservationist and environmentalist 60 years ago long before those words became popular.

Thanks Dad for being a Mentor.

Thanks Doug for sharing this great article and bringing back fond memories.


At 08:35, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Spo- Given how these stories usually go, this one actually has a relatively happy ending. Far more typical is the destruction of a site without any rescue of populations of rare species from it. For me, ecological restoration activities are akin to finding hope at the bottom of Pandora's box.

Jim- According to NatureServe, cerina has never been recorded in Massachusetts, though it has been found nearby (CT, NH, and ME all have records), so it is possible. Find it in MA and you'll get famous in the lep community. I simplified the life cycle in my post. It starts out on grasses. Everyone says that it uses bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula), but that species was completely absent from the site where I found it. It does the stem boring thing as it gets older. Turk's cap lily is also listed as a host.

Dr. Know- Thanks. Which metro area are you referencing? Here in Chicago, that sort of gardeining is becoming very popular in some circles, so it doesn't surprise me to hear of it catching on elsewhere.

>Graphium... Oops, Eurytides marcellus

You're dating yourself!

cedrorum- Te piping plover thing would definitely be fun. I assume you're referring to the element of beginner's luck in my post. It's one of the things that I really like about this story.

Troy- Thanks for sharing that memory of your Dad. My father has no scientific training, but instilled in all of his kids a love of the outdoors. He had a big hand in nurturing my interest in butterflies, and was also an excellent mentor.

At 10:31, Blogger Texas Travelers said...

Well, thanks to you I now have a new copy of "The field guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada". It's a great book. I have been going through and looking at the range maps to see what I might encounter. I now need to go through thousands of photos to find any that I have already seen and photographed.

Have a great day,

At 11:29, Blogger rodger said...

That is a wonderful story Doug! I do have to ask though...just how do you coax a caterpillar into a carrot? I'd probably crush the poor thing.

At 17:05, Blogger Dr. Know said...

>Which metro area are you referencing?

10 miles from MidTown Atlanta. We gather anything unusual and plant it, most does pretty well. But space is limited and lighting conditions are rather shady; thereby restricting what can be successfully transplanted. And what a surprise to look behind a tree and find a huge, flourishing clump of XX sp. that is struggling where _you_ selected (by hand based on its original location) to place it.

>>Graphium... Oops, Eurytides marcellus

>You're dating yourself!

Eh, I was but a wee child... ;-)
At least I didn't mention Papilio.
Darned taxonomists.

Excuse the it's faux pas - didn't proofread and that mistake drives me crazy. Stupid fingers.

At 20:47, Blogger Dave Coulter said...

doug - Yep. It's moments like this I realize this is a pretty good place to be all in all :)

At 22:12, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Troy- It's a new book, and my copy is already well-thumbed. I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Rodger- Mostly it involves sitting the caterpillar on your finger,aiming its head towards the hole and hoping that it tires of the process before you do.

Doc- Well, I go far enough back to remember, too. Don't tell anyone...

Dave- Indeed it is.

At 02:34, Blogger Marvin said...

Great story.

At 17:21, Blogger Kathie Brown said...

Wow! What a project! I'm shaking my head over the idea of trying to coax a caterpillar into a carrot. How did the Mayapple clones get there? How sad to hear the woodlot is now a housing project.

At 06:49, Blogger Texas Travelers said...

This is a great story. I am glad to see it re-newed over at Circus OTS #33.

Great choice,

At 03:15, Blogger Unknown said...

Great job on identifying that species and then taking the time to release a few back into their habitat!

I think more people care about things like this than most people think its just there isn't really a network to reach everyone.

Instead of a amber alert maybe we need a green alert!

PS: Don't mow "the weeds"!


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