The Very Hungry Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar - From Youthful Defoliation to Chrysalis
Watching generations of gulf fritillary caterpillars go through multiple stages as they defoliate the native passionflower vines (passiflora incarnata) in my yard never gets old. Within weeks they turn into large orange caterpillars with black spikes. I often see the caterpillars hanging out on top of leaves untouched by birds who mistakenly think the soft black spikes are hard and stay away from them.
As the caterpillars get closer to pupating (turning into a chrysalis) they start gobbling up just about every part of their host, the native passionflower vine, including the buds and flowers. As gorgeous as the passionflowers are, I want my yard to be a sanctuary for all creatures so I'm perfectly content sacrificing them so we can have more butterflies in our world.
I can recognize when the caterpillars are just about to pupate because they look grotesquely squishy and somewhat iridescent. At that point they leave the passionflower vine in search of a safe place to become a butterfly. I marvel at how driven the caterpillars motor along the ground in their quest to find the perfect spot.
I'm not sure of the criteria, but I've found caterpillars on deck railings, my potting bench, under the eaves and even on a broom handle on the porch!
Before I saw the lifecycle in action so many times, I tried to put what I thought were lost caterpillars back on the vines, not realizing they were on a mission to find a safe spot to pupate. Now when I see a caterpillar crawling in what I think is a strange place, I do what I've realized I need to do in my yard when I'm not sure what's going on, I leave it alone and let nature be in charge.