I keep finding sycamore tussock moth caterpillars on low stone walls in Manhattan’s Central Park and on the iron fences that surround the lawns of the American Museum of Natural History.
The caterpillars are covered with white hairs. They have four orange tufts and four white tufts on the front end and a pair of white tufts on the rear. They will eventually grow to be relatively unremarkable yellow moths with pale bands on their wings.
Each time I find one of the caterpillars I look up and see either a London plane tree or an American sycamore – their host plants.
American sycamores and London plane trees are easily recognized by bark that peels off to leave puzzle-piece patterns of green, cream, and brown on trunk and branches.
Like many insects, sycamore tussock moth caterpillars eat just a few related plants -- sycamores and plane trees -- and have ended up being named after their food. They eat the soft green leaf tissue and leave behind lacy leaf skeletons made of stems and veins.
Sycamore tussock moths spend the winter in cocoons on host trees. Adult moths emerge in spring. They mate and then lay eggs under leaves and on bark. The eggs soon hatch into a profusion of fancy white caterpillars. By June, there are so many caterpillars that we notice them falling out of the trees and walking along fences.
The caterpillars we are seeing in Manhattan now will soon make cocoons. They’ll emerge as adult moths in late July and August to mate and lay eggs that will hatch into a second wave of caterpillars at summer’s end. Those caterpillars will make cocoons in September or October and spend the winter inside them -- emerging as adults next spring to begin the cycle again.
There is more information about urban moths and butterflies in my book, A Field Guide to Urban Wildlife of North America, which will be published by Stackpole Books in spring 2011.