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KITTEN MOTHS

Kitten moth larvaA group of four species of Notodontidae moths have caterpillars whose heads have two ear-like projections and whose backs have dark markings resembling the silhouette of a kitten!

Of the four only the largest, the Puss Moth, is common in Cumbria. The smallest, the Sallow Kitten, is scarce in the county, but increasingly recorded in south Cumbria. The Alder Kitten has never been recorded reliably in Cumbria, although it has from a mile or so over the southern border at Gait Barrows. The Poplar Kitten has been recorded once in 1976 and once in 2002 (the latter at Haresfield).

The purple-black saddle on the larva of the Puss moth (see image) provides camouflage by breaking up the body outline and the shadow on the leaf. The "tail" is really two modified claspers held together, from which two reddish filaments can be extended. When whipped about these are supposed to deter parasitic wasps, but not always successfully. If disturbed, the later stages of the larvae rear up and adopt a threatening posture. This is all bluff, however! The two black "eyes" are false and the red ring does nothing more than feign the usual warning coloration of foul tasting species. The adults are splendid moths, white in background but beautifully marked with bands and lines of black and grey-brown, with occasional touches of orange.

Size, and the shape of the central wing band, help to distinguish the four species. They are generally on the wing in May and June, sometimes being seen resting on fence posts or tree trunks during the day (or in my garden in May 2000 when a fresh Puss Moth was resplendent on a sheet on the washing line in full mid-day sun!).