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What would you do if you found one of these bright red creatures in your yard?

pipevine caterpillarpipevine caterpillar

You should cheer because they are the caterpillars of the beautiful pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor). We found these at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona.

The bright red caterpillars will turn into one of these butterflies.

pipevine butterfly

Check out the gorgeous metallic blue on the lower parts.

I should admit right away that it is extremely difficult to get a good photograph of a pipevine swallowtail butterfly. The butterflies have a behavior known as “flutter feeding” which mean their wings are in almost constant motion. This one was on the floor in a public place, so I suspect it may have been stepped on. Too bad.

The caterpillars of the pipevine swallowtail feed on plants called pipevines (Aristolochia species), hence the name. The plant is a small, drab vine and is hard to spot. I am grateful to my friend who pointed out this one. Edit: My friend says this plant is Aristolochia watsonii.

pipevine plant

The plants contain a nasty chemical called aristolochoic acid that deters most animals from feeding on them. The ability to feed on pipevine plants is a unique feature of these caterpillars.

The caterpillars change size and color as they grow. You may also see pipevine caterpillars that look like the ones above, but are black instead of red.  The larger, older caterpillars are often found resting on plants besides their hosts (the ones they feed on). The caterpillar above is not on a pipevine.

On the same day we also saw this little butterfly.

bordered patch butterflybordered patch butterfly

This is the adult of the bordered patch (Chlosyne lacinia). In some books it might be called a lacinia checkerspot. This little guy is really quite battered.

The bordered patch species is also quite variable in color, like the caterpillars of the pipevine. The North American Butterfly Association has a page of photographs of members of this species. You will see this dark color version towards the bottom. How did anyone ever figure out they were all the same species?

I was not surprised to learn the bordered patch caterpillars feed on sunflowers (as well as ragweed). Here is the garden that was only a few feet away from where I found the butterfly. If you want to raise butterflies, just plant a few of these.

sunflower garden

Have you ever wondered what your cat was saying when it makes various sounds? Let's take a look at cats communicating and then do some simple activities to learn more.

If you don't have cats (or even if you do), listen to the cats in the video below and decide what you think they are saying.

The first gray cat is making a cat-to-human vocalization, that is he or she is trying to communicate to a human. He is definitely asking to go out. There may be a door there to the right side.

The second cat is looking out the window at birds. Cats often make that sound when hunting, usually when the prey is out of reach. Some people have suggested that the cats are trying to call the birds in, which would be a cat-to-bird vocalization. Birds are curious when it comes to unusual sounds, as most birders know. Birders often make soft “pishing” noises to entice a bird to come closer. As for the cat's "cheh cheh" sounds, I have wondered whether the sound is to alert other cats in the area to potential prey. Cats are solitary hunters, but you never know.

The cats in the second video are more difficult to interpret. They are communicating to one another, so it is a cat-to-cat vocalization. But what are they saying? Maybe one wants to stay up and play, while the other wants to take a nap?

By the way, a scientist recently recorded cat sounds under various conditions and then asked volunteers to interpret the sounds. (There wasn’t a video to add visual cues). It turns out people who owned cats correctly figured out what the sounds meant about 40% of the time, and people who didn’t own cats didn’t have much luck. It isn't as easy as you would think to figure out what cats are saying.

Individual cats vary considerably in the sounds they make, based both on their genetics (breed) and learning environment. One of our cats had a sound we called “yhine,” a whining meow made while he was yawning. Cats can also make sounds we can’t hear, called ultrasonic sounds. When a cat opens its mouth, but doesn’t make a sound, it may be producing an ultrasonic call.

Activity 1. Talk like a cat (younger scientists)

Ask your children what sounds they think a cat makes. Have them discuss and try to imitate cat sounds like meows, murps, purrs and yowls. Carry on conversations using only cat sounds.

Activity 2. Study cat communication behavior

Spend some time listening to your cat. You might want to record or videotape your cat(s) communicating throughout the day. Relate which sounds your cat makes with activities or locations, to see if there are any patterns. For example, does he always make one sound in the kitchen? Could he be asking for food? Does she make another sound when she sees a bird outside the window?

For older children interested in sound, take a look at this website of math and science activities with sound. Towards the bottom is a detailed look at the differences of infrasound and ultrasound.

Next week we will move on to some fun science activities with pet guinea pigs. And now my cat wants me to feed her...

If you’d like to learn more about cats, here are a few books with information (contains affiliate links to Amazon).

How to Talk to Your Cat by Jean Craighead George and illustrated by Paul Meisel (2003)

How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language by Aline Alexander Newman and Gary Weitzman (2015)


Has you seen the "Take a Child Outside Week" website yet? Even if you aren't interested in participating, there are some good, easy ideas for Outdoor Activities. I really like the nature bracelet idea in the getting started section.

Take a Child Outside Week

September 24—September 30, 2008

I'm afraid Weekend Science Fun is going to have to wait until tomorrow because I took their advice and took my child outside today. 🙂

boyce thomp

Hope you are having a great weekend.

Thanks to Deb S. for suggesting this trip.