Winged Giants

Antheraea polyphemus is a North American member of the family Saturniidae, the giant silk moths. It is a tan-colored moth, with an average wingspan of 15 cm. – Wikipedia

A few weeks ago, my kids were in the dirt parking lot of a local restaurant with my father and happened upon a giant moth. I’m not joking when I say it was a giant because as far as moths go, this thing was a beast. It had a wingspan of 4 inches, and had two scary eyespots when it held its wings open. Unfortunately, something had either gotten ahold of it or it had been hit by a car because the moth was missing an antenna, some legs, and the left front wing was not fully intact. Knowing that the insect could not fly and would not make it through another night without being eaten, we brought it home.

It turns out our moth was a member of the Saturniidae family, or the giant silk moths. The upper side of its wings was different shades of brown, the better for blending in with dead foliage, and it had two purple eyespots on the hind wings. This moth species derives its name, Antheraea polyphemus, from these two eyespots, apparently reminding its discoverer of the Greek myth Polyphemus the Cyclops.

The polyphemus is not the only giant silk moth I have encountered in the Finger Lakes Region, luna moths are another stunning New York inhabitant active during the night. Luna moths, Actias luna, also have a wingspan of 4 inches or more, though they are pale green with eye spots that resemble Saturn with its rings. The hindwings also terminate in a long taper, making these moths appear very elegant.

Moths often display sexual dimorphism; more simply said males and females look different from each other. Male moths have large, feathery antenna which they use to detect the pheromones, or chemical smells, produced by unmated females, sometimes from miles away. Females still have antennae, they are just smaller and skinnier.

Adult members of the Saturniidae family also do not eat. After gorging themselves as caterpillars, these moths have vestigial mouthparts and live off the fat reserves they built up before metamorphizing. During this time, they live to reproduce and nothing more. And that time is short – only about a week – during which time the fertile female will mate and lay her eggs and members of both sexes pass on to let another generation come to life.

Knowing that our male polyphemus moth would be doomed if we released him, we placed him in a butterfly house and hung him near the window for the next few days. With his large wings and shimmery eyespots, he is a spectacular addition to the collection of feathers, butterflies, and other interesting nature items that the kids and I have collected over the years.


By Gabrielle L. Wheeler