Thursday, May 31, 2012

Encountering the giant leopard moth

An agreeable tiger moth, Spilosoma congrua. This snow white beauty appears as if it is adorned with a big feathery boa.

I spent some time yesterday meeting with Dave Horn, who is an entomologist and expert on moths. We're working on a project involving moths, and the resulting publication should be pretty cool. As an offshoot of the meeting, I learned a ton of new info about moths from Dave.

Thanks to Dennis Profant for giving me the correct ID of this little beauty - it is snout moth, and most likely Hypena palparia - not a horrid zale, as I thought.

I had a stack of "mystery moth" photos that I've taken over the years, and Dave was able to quickly pin names on nearly all of them. I enjoy the process of running down identifications of unknown organisms, but it is a lot faster and easier to trip the camera's shutter at a much speedier clip than one can sit down and try to identify everything. Thus, the mysteries can accumulate.

Moths are very cool, and I've found myself becoming increasingly interested in them. These largely nocturnal fliers become quite addictive, actually, once one begins to really investigate them.

So today I found myself lunching at the legendary Villa Nova in Worthington, Ohio, with several colleagues from work. The restaurant's front wall, right behind the sign post, became a place of great interest for our party upon exiting the joint.

One of our crew, Jen, glanced over at the aforementioned wall as we left and spotted this animal. Giant leopard moth! I was of course excited to have Hypercompe scribonia land right in our lap, as it were. This find also seemed like a cool bit of cosmic intervention from Mother Nature, perhaps as a reward for my paying intention to this obscure group of bugs, and liking them to boot. You see, the giant leopard moth is one of only about 50 species of Ohio's 3,000+ moth species that Dave and I had selected yesterday for our project. And I had no good photos of this species!

This old fellow has been around for a while and has become somewhat tattered. Still looks good, though. You'd think that such an outrageous looking moth would stick out like a sore thumb, and its chances of being plucked by a bird would be high. Well, they do stand out when roosting on a blank wall, but a leopard moth on tree bark can blend in quite well, all of those dots and hollowed out circles serving to break up its appearance.

I happened to have a suitable container in my trunk, so we captured the leopard and transported it the short distance back to our office compound. There, I was able to make some photos of this lepidopteran bruiser, including images that show its incredibly ornate and colorful abdomen. The orange bands broken by the barbell-shaped iridescent blue marks create an almost shocking appearance when the moth spreads its wings. It may be that these are bright warning colors, which would suggest that the moth is chemically protected in some way. Or it may be that they serve to help ward off would-be predators. A chickadee investigates, moves in to nip the moth, which suddenly flips open its wings and visually blasts the bird with bright coloration. That just might work to spook the bird.

Or those colors may be there for some entirely different reason.

After the photo session, the leopard moth was placed in a good hiding spot among the vegetation, in a spot vastly preferable to the Villa Nova's stark wall.

Even the giant leopard moth's caterpillar is cool. We found this one last year on a foray into the depths of Adams County, Ohio. The ebony larva is encircled with blood-red bands between each body segment, and fairly bristles with tufts of stiff spines.

The caterpillars are polyphagous, which means they'll eat a great variety of different plant species. They've been recorded dining on everything from sunflowers to maples to violets to willows. As so many of its host plants are widespread and abundant, it means that you might luck into one a giant leopard moth nearly anywhere - even on the wall of your favorite Italian restaurant.


flux biota. said...

when I was 12, I thought the Spilosoma congrua was the most beautiful flying creature on earth. Haven't thought about it for awhile but I don't think my feelings have changed.

DenPro said...

Jim, your Horrid Zale is actually one of the Hypena Snout Moths, most likely palparia.

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you, Dennis - your expertise is valued, and the correction has been made! And I agree about the agreeable tiger moths, Flux!