Sunday, April 24, 2005

Polyphemus Moth Eggs Hatching

Photo by Eureka Posted by Hello

Polyphemus is one of the most spectacular moths - and caterpillars - in the world. Both are huge; the caterpillar can get to be 3.5" long, and the moth have a wingspan of 6" or more. The moth has two eyespots in its underwings that it can snap out to look like the eyes of an owl. If you're a bat, say, about to eat the moth, and it suddenly looks instead like an owl - which likes to eat bats! - you may decide to fly away and leave that moth alone. So the moth lives and gets to reproduce after all.

The caterpillars become a beautiful translucent green with small yellow stripes and red dot markings. But they start out looking more like bird droppings. Since caterpillars are quite tasty to lots of predators, looking like bird doo is smart, especially when you're a newborn baby. Those predators don't much like to eat bird poop.

When the tiny caterpillars hatch, they first eat their eggshells. Then they can eat many different kinds of leaves. Even though they get so big, they aren't pests. That's because the mother moth only lays a few eggs, around six, so there aren't enough caterpillars in one place to do a lot of damage to trees.

Polyphemus is a type of Silkworm moth. Their cocoon is very difficult to cut open even with a razor. Silk from any of these moths can be stronger than steel. Polyphemus isn't the kind we make commercial silk from, but it's a very close relative.

Here's a great link for information and beautiful pictures of Polyphemus:

Click the link. An adult Polyphemus in all its glory will fill your screen.

The two pictures posted here were taken by Eureka. An adult female Polyphemus moth showed up at the Fossil Farm during our first weekend fossil dig, drawn to the lights in the pole barn. She got tired after a while, and made her way into one of the volunteer digger's trucks. She laid eggs on the dashboard, and Eureka collected six eggs for safekeeping. They hatched in only a couple of weeks, and she's been growing them ever since. We all hope some make it to adulthood, although this species lays so few eggs, that doesn't always happen. Nature can be harsh. So far, there are still four caterpillars, but only three are eating away. So we'll wait and see.

Meanwhile, Eureka captured their hatching on her digital camera. You can see how the little hatchlings look like bird droppings. The picture in the next post shows one of them about a week later, already turning from its newborn camouflage to its next color stage - that gorgeous green.

Thank you, Eureka! You're a good mom.


Desert Cat said...

There is a yellow and black butterfly here in Arizona that hatches caterpillars that look like bird droppings from birth. They stank too! Plus if you touch them they shoot out these wicked looking bright orange horns.

Unfortunately their favorite food is tender young citrus leaves, and they can completely strip a tree of its new leaves if there's more than a few. So they rank as a pest in my yard.

k said...

That sounds like a bug we really don't want to get accidentally transplanted to Florida. Our citrus doesn't have many pests. OTOH, we have citrus canker instead, and backyard fruit trees are getting cut down and chipped up left and right. Oh, court orders and warrants, appeals up the court chain even pleading the Geneva Convention, public outcry, tree ID's and planting moratoriums, and hurricanes blowing the bacteria all to hell and back in the "clean" counties!

Probably butterflies would be better. At least we'd have a pretty bug, and an interesting caterpillar to poke a stick at.

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