The caterpillar of the Uraba lugens moth is a bit of a deadhead, quite literally.
The unusual caterpillar, found mostly in Australia and New Zealand, wears its old molted heads as a kind of bizarre hat. This odd behavior gives it the nickname “mad hatterpillar” after after the Mad Hatter character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
“They use it to bat predators away,” photographer Alan Henderson told New Scientist on June 24. Thanks to Henderson’s latest photos taken for the invertebrate resource center Minibeast Wildlife in Queensland, Australia, the dead-hat habit is getting lots of attention online.
The Uraba lugens also goes by the common name of Gum Leaf Skeletonizer because it eats a lot of Eucalyptus leaves down to their veins. This gives the caterpillar enough energy to eventually metamorphose into an adult moth.
The green and yellow caterpillar — which measures about 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) long — can molt its exoskeleton up to 13 times while in caterpillar form before it eventually spins its own cocoon.
Each time it molts, the stack of its “skulls” grows taller. Plus, each empty head is slightly bigger than the one before it, as the caterpillar itself grows larger.
While the Uraba lugens caterpillar seems like a fun insect to study, many farmers in New Zealand and Australia consider it to be quite the pest. According to Farm Forestry New Zealand and Scion New Zealand Forest Research Institute, that’s because it often chews its way through natural forests of eucalyptus trees and other plants.