I took this photo in mid-late October at Sugarloaf Mountain while on a field trip with my Eastern Forests class. I cannot take credit for spotting this creeper, nor full credit for its identification as a Polyphemus Moth. Someone else found it, and Stephanie immediately knew it was a member of the Giant Silk Moth (Saturniidae) family that includes the Luna Moth. In this family, the Greek god Saturn’s children and the planet Saturn’s moons and other mythological Greek creatures are represented. The Luna Moth is an astonishingly beautiful insect, and the other giants (this was at least 1.5x the length of a Monarch) are just as remarkable although less well known and less often seen. Saturniids overwinter in a silk cocoon and emerge as an adult moth in the spring, flying, in the Luna’s case, at night. The adults have no working mouths. Since eating is out, their only goal is to find another loving mouthless adult in the dark to lose their virginity to. They find each other using pheromones (I am basing this claim loosely on my memory of Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer). They mate, and the female lays eggs, and they die. The next generation, the caterpillars, grow up over the summer. Seemingly reliable internet sources tell me that Polyphemus Moths often have two generations a year, with some caterpillars maturing in mid-summer to produce more caterpillars that will overwinter and mature in the following spring. This guy was at the end of the larval period, surely on the brink of cocoon season. Interestingly all of the images of Polyphemus caterpillars that I’ve found on Google show them curled up and hanging in a manner similar to this one. This rock, next to the parking lot, did not seem like a choice spot for avoiding the all-too-well-known-to-this-blog dangers of being eaten as an overwintering chrysalis or cocoon. Birds will go wild for that kind of protein in the cold months. So it was unclear what this friend was up to: taking a strange break or choosing a poor spot to pupate, or dying, or maybe something else beyond my mammalian imagining.
I was delighted though, in any case. Two of the Luna Moths I have seen made deep wrinkles in my brain where I can revisit them again and again.
Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon, and he was a Cyclops. SEE why this is the moth named for him? (I mean not totally since there are pairs of eyes, but one per wing, right?)
(I WISH this photo was mine. It is from GOOGLE).