The Malacosoma americana is of the Animalia kingdom. It comes from the family Lasiocampidae. It is better known as the Eastern Tent Caterpillar. Not to be confused with the similar Forest Tent Caterpillar. This small insect is a marvel though. It starts out as one of hundred or so eggs in a small almost black bundle; when the eggs hatch, the small larvae or caterpillars climb up trees and start the process of making their home. The caterpillars typically prefer trees like the black cherry or an oak tree for their silk tent. The tents are as their shelter and can be made in various places. It also grows along with the caterpillars. As they mature, the tent becomes larger and larger.
When they are in their caterpillar state, they grow only to be about 5 centimeters long. The body is black with a white streak down the back. They also have blue specks and red or yellow lines outlining them. The tent caterpillar also has a ‘hairy’ appearance. When it becomes an adult or a moth, the wings are also fuzzy with a reddish-brown body with white streaks. And they reach a wingspan of 5 centimeters wide.
The stage between larvae and adult is known as the pupa stage. This is where they leave their tent shelter and climb down the tree to find a space for their cocoon. At this time, they are especially vulnerable. Many of them are killed off by various animals such as ducks, bluejays, turkeys, frogs, snakes, turtles, foxes, and bats. Fish are also known to eat them if they fall into the water. At this time of travel, they have no safety to retreat to and are often put out in the open. But if they survive into adulthood, that is when it begins to mate. The female can lay up to 300 eggs in the late summer. The eggs then need to survive the winter before they hatch in the spring.
These small insects are herbivores. They survive off of plants. The eastern tent caterpillar is found to typically consumer cherry, oak, and beech trees. This is also where they spend the majority of their early life. And where it is found to set up the tent.
The eastern tent caterpillar plays a role in the environment. It is an important food supply for many animals and if it were to disappear, then the carrying capacity for various species would be altered. As climate changes, some caterpillars are experiencing changes in their growth. Many hatchlings have been delayed or premature. When they emerge early, they are also at risk of starvation. As the normal period of birth in the spring is relatively early, they are born simultaneously with when new leaves are first emerging. That also puts their food in risk as it may damage the tree from further production if all the initial leaves are eaten. This is why if the smallest of changes happen to cause a reaction in their cycle, it may have a huge impact on the ecosystem.
One study of the eastern tent caterpillar shows that it helps to protect black cherry trees from use by the webworms. Which is another common tent building caterpillar. But it is determined to be a less advanced bug (Travis 2005). The eastern tent caterpillars are shown to be more social and communicate with fellow eastern tent caterpillars by the creation of the tent, synchronized search for food, as well as recruiting. These caterpillars are not on the same level as bees, but they do preform some complex interactions. At least, more so than the webworm. Without the eastern caterpillar, the webworm’s population may surge as new breeding grounds becoming available. They may be a small species, but in the end, they play a big role in the ecosystem.
Abarca, M and Lill, J.T. 2015. Warming affects hatching time and early season survival of eastern tent caterpillars. Oecologia 179(3):901-912.
ITIS Integrated Taxonomic Information System [Internet]. Reston, VA. [updated 2015 Jan 5. cited 10-10-16] . Available from: http://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=117543
Milne, Lorus and Margery Milne. 1980. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Resh and Cardé. 2003. Encyclopedia of Insects. Boston (MA): Academic Press. p. 6632-639.
Travis HJ. 2005. The effect of eastern tent caterpillar (malacasoma americanum) infestation on fall webworm (hyphantria cunea) selection of black cherry (prunus serotina) as a host tree. The American Midland Naturalist. 153(2):270-5.