Smilax, greenbrier, the thorny tangle of bright green vine and waxy leaves, limits my access to the swampy lowlands of Millis, Massachusetts. In one place the leaves have been skeletonized, in another they are simply missing. If the timing is right I may just catch a look at the culprits; turbulent phosphila, a mass appearing more like some strange outdoor QR code than biological life.
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A mass of fully grown turbulent phosphila snuggle up to each other on a single Smilax leaf. Like a carefully laid mosaic, the caterpillars fit together perfectly, hiding any evidence of the bright green leaf below.
If approached, phosphila caterpillars will begin to wiggle. Dense groups of the caterpillars appear to undulate and shiver in unison – a trembling study in black and white abstraction. If approached still further, the turbulent phosphila will throw themselves off their leaves and hang suspended from silken lifelines, thrashing and spinning. Overall, an astonishing and confounding display.
The defensive value of these behaviors is not entirely obvious, but a group of panicking phosphila is surely a sight to behold!
Custom photographs from Samuel Jaffe's "The Art of Survival" are available for purchase.
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