Monday, October 7, 2013

Charismatic Moths of the South

Ever since we bought our first field guide in Florida, we've wanted to see a Luna Moth. They're the poster species for charismatic moths, with their large size, long, twisted tail, and that awesome glow-in-the-dark shade of green. We've known to check the sweetgum trees around here, because we'd heard they use them as a host plant, but with their brief adult lives, we knew we'd have to be pretty lucky to come across one: they only live for a week in their adult phase, having no mouth and no ability to eat. So imagine our surprise when a luna moth found us!

Luna Moth! As glorious as we'd hoped

Digiscoped shot, from just outside our apartment

Our third-floor apartment overlooks a sweet marsh, but it's not the first place I'd expect to find creatures of any magnificence. A few weeks ago, though, I spotted a Luna Moth on way home from work, 30 feet from our front door. It stayed two full days, and then (presumably) flew off. For a moth with so much to accomplish, and so little time to do it in, it seems imprudent to have spent 48 hours loitering on the ceiling of our breezeway, but I'm not complaining. Earlier this week, a second Luna appeared at nearly the exact same spot. I'm not sure what it is their drawn to, but I hope it doesn't ever change while we're still living here.

Luna Moth -- here it kind of reminds me of SpaceShipOne. I would have assumed the tail is
decorative, but the resemblance makes me wonder if it serves an aerodynamic function.

Lunas are incredible moths, but only one in a string of charismatic moths that have shown up recently. Last year while taking a stroll through Whitemarsh Preserve we came across both Io Moth and Imperial Moth caterpillars. How appropriate then that the very day Maureen found a dead adult Imperial Moth at work, I found an adult Io Moth on the wall outside the gym. I wasn't sure it what it was at first, since the forewings were covering its beautiful and iconic eyespots. I gently moved its forewings aside, and immediately realized what I was looking at. Another great moth species finding me when I was least suspecting it.

Io Moth -- little did I suspect the magnificence that lay just beneath those forewings

Ah yes -- now that's an Io Moth

And then a Tersa Sphinx Moth found its way into the hall outside our door. This season had suddenly become an embarrassment of riches. This is our second autumn living here, and we never came across any spectacular moths last year. For some mysterious reason, we're crossing paths pretty regularly now. The sphinx moth stayed for between two and three days, changing position everyone and a while, like to the opposite wall. Another, smaller moth was here at the same time, and strangely, they seemed like they were best buddies: whenever we saw that one had moved, we'd find the other one just a couple of feet away. When one had finally left the breezeway, the other had too.

Tersa Sphinx Moth -- an almond with wings

An oblique view of the Tersa Sphinx Moth. The wings look like they're made of wood paneling

Unidentified moth sp. -- wherever the sphinx moth went, this little fella went, too

Finally, last weekend we went a-warblin' at the Solomon Tract section of the Savannah NWR (just before the government shutdown, thankfully). We were quite taken with a particular plant that had purple pods hanging down the entire length of its stalks, and which also grew some lovely yellow flowers. Near a row of these plants we saw a pair of vibrant pink wings take flight, which, after they settled, found that they belonged to a striking Ornate Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). The pink hindwings were hidden as it rested, but the visible bits were no less alluring. We later discovered that moths in the Utetheisa genus, which Ornate Moths belong to, are collectively known as "rattlebox moths" after those pod plants nearby (Crotalaria), which serve as an important food source for them.


Flowers of the "rattlebox" plant

Ornate Moth

It's been quite the month or so for charismatic moths. We'll keep our eyes out for more, but if our luck holds they'll continue to greet us when we open the door!

Who needs to go moth hunting when the moths come to you? I stepped outside and
this one landed right on the front of my shirt. It's been an unusually lucky moth month!
UPDATE: Literally within five seconds of my posting this our lifer Polyphemous Moth flew up to our patio screen and attached itself. Unbelievable!!


  1. Hi guys, You need to get over to Savannah NWR to do the challenge! (Challenge ends Oct. 31....valuable prizes!)

    1. Thanks for pointing this out, Steve! We'll try to head over there this weekend