10+ years between Polyphemus moth sightings

The following are three separate articles I wrote about the giant Polyphemus moth. 2 from the summer of 2009, one from this week. My Polyphemus moth sightings are few and far between! All three published in area newspapers and online with Seacoast Media Group

The Giant Polyphemus Moth is in the woods near you

Published July 13 2021 by Seacoast Media Group, Foster’s Daily, the Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, York County Coast Star and more

Who doesn’t get excited upon finding a huge moth?  While we don’t have the diversity of butterflies and moths found in the tropics, we do have some remarkable species up here.  The one I found the other day isn’t colorful, but it is huge with striking markings–the Polyphemus moth.  The Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) is the most widely distributed of the giant silk moths in North America.  The ethereal luna moth (Actias luna) is another large, common and well-known silk moth.  These aren’t the kind of silk moth that are used commercially to spin silk, instead the giant silk moth’s silk is exclusively used to spin cocoons.  

You can see the transparent center of the hindwing eyespots Sue Pike photo

Adult Polyphemus moths don’t have mouths! Their only goal is to mate.

While these are common moths, I have seen very few and my experience is tinged with tragedy (the last one I found had an unfortunate encounter with my dog’s water bowl, before that I found one forlornly wandering the woods with a missing wing) so it was nice to find a fairly healthy specimen.  He looked old to me, one of his wings had a big chunk missing (yet he could still fly quite well). Given that the adult Polyphemus moth typically lives for less than a week he must of  had an exciting time in his brief existence as an adult moth. I knew this moth was a ‘he’ because Polyphemus moths exhibit differences in their antennae (sexual dimorphism), the males’ have big bushy antennae–giving the antennae lots of surface area to help detect pheromones released by the females (females have less bushy, more slender antennae). This is important because Polyphemus moths need to find each other quickly.  Polyphemus moths overwinter in their silken cocoons, the adult moths emerging in late spring and early summer. Adults don’t eat, they don’t have mouths (which is weird to think about) their only point in life from here on out is to mate and lay eggs. Mating usually takes place within a day after emergence.  

Male Polyphemus moths have large bushy antennae that they use to track females Sue Pike photo

The females lay their eggs (singly or in groups of 2 or 3) on a host plant.  The caterpillars feed on a wide variety of deciduous trees, for example, oaks, maples, willow and birch, all of which readily available around here.  The young don’t descend as a horde like some caterpillars, instead Polyphemus caterpillars are solitary, eating the entire leaf and then snipping it off at the petiole (stem).  It is believed that this is a protective measure against predators that look for leaf damage as a sign of potential caterpillar prey.  Eventually the caterpillar will spin its cocoon-you can find these attached to a leaf on the host tree or sometimes among debris on the forest floor – and spend the winter getting ready for its finale as one of the largest moths in North America (wingspans can reach almost 6 inches!).  It’s giant silk moth cousin, the cecropia moth, which also can be found in New England, is the largest with wingspans that can reach 7 inches across.

Polyphemus moth ID

How to identify a Polyphemus moth? The adults can vary a lot in color-from tan to reddish brown to dark brown.  To me the defining feature is the large eyespot on each hindwing.  All four wings have a transparent eyespot surrounded with yellow.  However the hindwing eyespot is further outlined with a deep blue that deepens to black, it really looks like an eye.  In fact, the species and common names for this species, come from the giant cyclops, Polyphemus, who had a single eye in the middle of his forehead.  This was the cyclops who trapped Odysseus and his men in a cave and proceeded to eat them until the wily Odysseus blinded him and escaped.  The eyespots on the moth are used to scare away predators.  With the wings folded up the moth is expertly disguised as a dead leaf.  If that doesn’t work, flashing those huge eyes at a predator will often scare it away.

I know going to the beach or a lake seem like more summery things to do here in New England, but how about a moth hunt? Many of the giant silk moths are most active right now-look for them clinging to a windowsill or the side of a shed during the day and flying around lights at night.  They are one sign of summer you don’t want to miss.

From Caterpillar to Moth

Published October 1, 2009

In June I wrote a column about an unfortunate Polyphemus moth that hatched out of its cocoon in my kitchen and failed to survive a fall into the dog water dish.

Fortuitously a reader in Pennsylvania read this column and wrote to me after rescuing a beleaguered Polyphemus moth from a parking lot. She, Carol Guenther, jewelry designer and now caterpillar-wrangler, built an enclosure for the moth, watched it lay eggs, 78 in all, followed along as the eggs hatched into gorgeous caterpillars and recorded their growth and development from egg to cocoon to moth (usually these moths have to overwinter as pupae).

Polyphemus moths are one of our largest moths, they can attain a 5½-inch wing span. Their name comes from the eye spots on their wings, after the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, from “The Odyssey.” These eye spots are a nice example of a defense strategy called mimicry. They hide out, looking a lot like a dead leaf or dead wood, but if this disguise doesn’t work, they flash the eyespots on their hindwings, mimicking an owl’s eyes, and hopefully, startling would-be predators.

Aside from mating, the majority of a Polyphemus’ life is spent as a caterpillar; as a caterpillar they eat and grow. They will molt four times before spinning a cocoon. With each molt they increase in size.

Polyphemus caterpillars recently molted and ready to eat Carol Guenther photo

Carol, lucky and patient person that she is, had the opportunity to observe the whole process.

“As I was putting some of them back in the cage I noticed one who’s head plate was half way down the new head. I knew that it was going to happen soon so I took it to my studio and set up to watch. As I looked closer, I could see that the skin looked funny, like tiny white wrinkles running vertically. I then realized that it probably was beginning to move about inside the skin in order to molt. I grabbed my chair and the camera and sat there. It indeed happened and I shot photos during the whole process. I forgot to check the time but I think it took about an hour.

″ … They apparently attach and secure themselves to whatever they are hanging from and then slowly move forward. When it’s over the skin is attached to the twig.”

The shed exoskeleton from this recently molted caterpillar dangles behind. Carol Guenther photo

Like all caterpillars, Polyphemus caterpillars are vulnerable to a slew of predators. Aside from being green to help blend in with the leaves they eat, after munching on a leaf they chew through the petiole, the leaf stem, disposing of the “evidence.” Smart predatory birds often use holes in leaves and chew patterns to target their caterpillar prey.

Carol’s caterpillars stayed with her for a few months, eating and growing. Finally, they were ready to pupate; to construct a cocoon within which they would undergo their transformation into adult flying moths. To do this they wrapped themselves in a leaf, bound into a case with silk. The case then hardened and turned brown.

When this caterpillar emerges from its cocoon it will be an adult moth Carol Guenther photo

Once metamorphosis was complete, the Polyphemus moths in all their glory emerged and flew off into the night.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all get to know an insect as intimately as Carol did? Polyphemus moths and thousands of other beautiful beings share our backyards, largely unnoticed. I think all of us could learn a lesson here; to stop and really look at something, explore, find out about what is out there and try to understand it.

Catch (and release) your own Polyphemus moth

Published July 9, 2009

This story with a tragic ending started with an egg case given to me by a friend in the dead of winter. We thought it belonged to a praying mantis so I kept it on the kitchen counter, eagerly awaiting the “birth” and dispersal of hundreds of baby mantids; not too thoughtful on my part, since emerging into a kitchen isn’t quite the same as the garden of insects these baby predators instinctively expect.

But instead of praying mantids, at some point a moth hatched from the cocoon. I missed the event but did notice later what I thought was a leaf in the dogs’ water dish. The leaf turned out to be a large moth that must have struggled out of its cocoon, walked a few halting steps to the edge of the counter and plunged down into the water dish.

Tragic enough if it had ended there, but the moth was still alive, a beautiful, giant fuzzy brown moth with crinkled wings. The wings were glued shut, probably because it had floated in the water dish instead of perching on a branch. There is a lovely yet sad part in the Annie Dillard book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” where the author remembers a similar event from her childhood, her last memory being ” Someone had given the Polyphemus moth his freedom, and he was walking away …; crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

My doomed moth-the wings never unfolded. This is a beautiful male with its feathery antennae

My doomed moth, I believe, based on its size and the hints of color I could see in its devastated wings was also a Polyphemus moth. These are magnificent moths, named for the eyespots on their hindwings; Polyphemus was the one-eyed Cyclops from Greek mythology.

Part of a larger family of moths, known as the silkworm moths or the Saturniidae, the Polyphemus is North America’s most wide-ranging Saturniid (wing spans can reach 6 inches) living east of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. A familiar cousin is the stunning Luna moth, a ghostly pale green inhabitant of the deep woods.

These moths exhibit something called sexual dimorphism, meaning differences in the genders. Female bodies tend to be a bit larger than the males, especially when carrying eggs, and have smaller antennae. The males have strikingly large, feathery antennae which they use to detect the pheromones given off by the females. My moth was a male. I didn’t have a female to compare him to, but the antennae were unmistakable.

Polyphemus moths do not eat; like the rest of the Saturniids, they emerge from their cocoons with vestigial mouthparts. Their adult lives are devoted to reproduction. Finding a mate is a special event as this is the short-lived (the moths live just one week) last gasp of the Polyphemus life cycle.

My moth’s life ended in tragedy. I couldn’t bear to let it crawl away, dragging itself to its doom, to be killed by a chipmunk (the image evoked in Annie Dillard’s book was just too haunting and sad), so I froze it and left it by a log to be gently decomposed and returned to the earth.

It is relatively easy to find Polyphemus cocoons as they stand out against the snow of winter, and many people have successfully hatched out the moths. If you want to try this, make sure to house the cocoon in a container large enough to allow the moth to unfurl its wings before they dry shut.

If you would rather see a Polyphemus moth in the wild, check your outside lights at night, or better yet, make a moth trap by stretching a white sheet between some trees in front of a light bulb. You will, hopefully, be amazed by the throngs of unusual nocturnal insects that are attracted to the light and settle on the sheet. (07-13-21 note-as I learn more I become more uncomfortable with attracting wildlife. Nocturnal moths life cycles are already highly disrupted by outdoor lights, why add to the problem? I also now think it is a bad idea to raise moths in captivity. This definitely disrupts a monarch butterfly’s ability to migrate and might, similarly, interfere with natural cues necessary for moth survival. )

Muskrat Love: Overlooked rodents help keep wetlands healthy

published week of July 5th 2021

A friend who lives in Dover and I routinely meet at the Cocheco River to kayak on warm summer afternoons.  I’m always amazed at the wildlife along this river that runs through downtown Dover.  Just a half-mile outside the city, as soon as paved surfaces give way to trees, life explodes: great blue herons, green herons, kingfishers and osprey hunt for fish, huge snapping turtles laze near the sun-dappled surface, little painted turtles bask on logs and wild grapes dangle over the water.  We’ve found a hidden marsh off of the main river that is a fun tangle of lily pads, bladderwort (one of my favorites- a carnivorous aquatic plant!) cattails and pickerelweed.  We are able to kayak through this aquatic jungle thanks to the muskrats that carve narrow passages through the dense vegetation.

Our kayaks were able to navigate through the marsh using muskrat trails Sue Pike photo

Muskrats tend to get overlooked — we’re all aware of beavers and their role in building wetlands with their dams and impacting surrounding woodlots by cutting down valuable timber, but you don’t hear much about muskrats. Muskrats are, in fact, invaluable wetland engineers, removing extra plants and making sure waterways are clear.  They carve channels through dense cattail or pickerel stands that lead into and out of their lodges (trappers routinely set their traps along these canals); these provide space for other plants and animals, helping to keep a marsh from becoming a monoculture.  They also slow the process of succession in a marsh-where the buildup of dead vegetation causes the marsh to fill in and become a field.  Muskrats help keep the perfect mix of water and vegetation in marshes.

Muskrats are not beavers, however, like beavers, they are ecosystem engineers.

Muskrats are not closely related to beavers, nor are they true rats-if you took a mouse and made it bigger and aquatic you would have a muskrat. They are closely related to voles and lemmings, with the characteristic rodent incisors that will grow through the skull if they are not constantly in use. Like their cousin the beaver, muskrats live in the water and build lodges, but are much smaller and are composed of mud, cattails and bulrushes (vs the beavers who use sticks). They also construct floating rafts of vegetation on top of the water to use as feeding platforms.  Like beavers they will also burrow into river banks if conditions don’t support building a lodge. 

Muskrat lodge at end of muskrat trails

Muskrats have taken the basic field mouse body plan and tweaked it for life-aquatic (or rather the environment has selected traits that help muskrats survive in the water).  Instead of the broad, flattened tail of a beaver, muskrats have a rounder, thinner tail that is flattened side-to-side. They use this tail, plus their slightly-webbed rear feet to propel themselves through the water. Their fur is dense, waterproof and buoyant.  My favorite adaptation to aquatic life is their ability to chew with their mouth closed while feeding underwater.  Their lips can close behind their  incisors (front teeth) so that they can keep their mouth closed while nibbling on underwater plants. 

Muskrats are basically large field mice adapted for a life aquatic.

Another great adaptation to aquatic life is their ability to stay underwater for up to 17 minutes.  Most non-aquatic mammals can’t do this because of the need for oxygen and to get rid of carbon dioxide building up in the bloodstream.  Muskrats reduce their heart rate and relax their muscles when submerged to slow down the rate at which oxygen is used and carbon dioxide is produced.  They also can store extra oxygen in their muscles and can tolerate more carbon dioxide in their blood than non-aquatic mammals. This is important, they need to be able to stay underwater for long periods of time while foraging for submerged stems and roots, travelling under the ice in winter and escaping from enemies.  

Without the muskrat our secret marsh would probably be a monoculture of cattails or perhaps would have become so clogged with dead cattails and sediment that it would be well on its way to becoming dry land.  This hidden marsh is a reminder to me that nature is a wonderful balancing act; that unlikely characters, the muskrat in this case, can have subtle feedbacks on a system that are critical for the health of that system–in this case maintaining a healthy marsh.

Milk snakes (all snakes) are our friends.

Originally published June 24 2020 in The York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily and other Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online at seacoastonline.com

While hiking up South Moat Mountain last week, a large milk snake crossed the trail. This was a beautiful snake – reddish blotches ringed in a darker brown against a grayish-tan background.

So, of course, since this is one of the snakes most often confused with a rattlesnake, we began wildly speculating about whether it was actually a rattlesnake, and whether there are any timber rattlesnakes in the region. We were afraid to get too near its head-end; milk snakes aren’t venomous but I think they are much more aggressive than garter snakes.

Milk snake along South Moat Trail Sue Pike photo

I’ve been attacked by milk snakes in the past. Instead of slithering quickly away like their garter snake cousins, they seemed more likely to rear up and try to bite. However, if you do some research into our local snakes, you’ll find that milk snakes are considered to be quite passive. They won’t bother you unless you bother them …. which makes me rethink my stance on the aggressiveness of these snakes …. the only times they seemed more aggressive than a garter snake were times when I was trying to pick one up. Who was the aggressor in that interaction?

Milk snakes mimic rattlesnakes by vibrating their tails in dried leaves.

As we tried to get close to this particular milk snake, it started rattling its tail. We excitedly looked for rattles – but there were none (we still wanted it to be a rattlesnake). It did make an effective rattlesnake mimic, its vibrating tail rattling the dried leaves in a convincing rattlesnake-esque way.

The origin of the name “milk snake” most likely comes from the old belief that these snakes sucked the milk from cow udders. (There is a bird that has the colloquial name “goatsucker” for a similar incorrect belief.) This is likely because milk snakes are common around barns – though they are there in search of mice and rats rather than cow udders. This is one of the many reasons you should leave these snakes alone.

You are unlikely to encounter a venomous snake in New England

There are nine species of snakes in Maine, none are venomous. There are 11 species of snakes in New Hampshire, only the endangered timber rattlesnake is venomous. There are 14 species of snakes found in Massachusetts, only two of them (the endangered timber rattlesnake and the endangered copperhead) are venomous. There is a trend here – fewer snakes the further north you go because snakes are cold-blooded and they don’t do well in northern climates. So the chance of encountering a venomous snake becomes less and less likely. You should assume that if you see a snake around here that you think is a rattlesnake, it is most likely a milk snake.

Timber rattlesnakes used to be found in both Maine and New Hampshire. The autumn 2014 edition of “Northern Woodlands” has a lovely description of the northern expansion of timber rattlesnakes into New England following the last glaciation.

“Approximately 8,000 years ago, a period of global warming called the Hypsithermal Interval stimulated timber rattlesnakes to move north from the vicinity of Long Island. They followed river corridors – the Delaware, the Hudson, the Connecticut, the Housatonic, the Merrimack – and eventually reached southern Quebec and southwestern Maine. Wherever passageways in bedrock or talus led to frost-free winter retreats, the snakes established colonies … Today, rattlesnakes thrive where the human population is sparse – land that is wide-open, wind-swept, and remote.“ (Ted Levin).

Please do not kill snakes!!!!

Currently there are no known populations of timber rattlesnakes in Maine, and only one population in New Hampshire (making it one of the most endangered wildlife species in the state).  The reason for this is unrelenting persecution by humans-they are hunted and they are collected and are therefore gone. They are no longer present in Maine due to hunting and collecting by humans.   I found it incredibly sad that the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department web page about snakes has to explicitly state “PLEASE DO NOT KILL SNAKES. New Hampshire has only one venomous snake, the timber rattlesnake, which is protected by law. If you think you see a timber rattlesnake, please leave it alone, and let us know. There is no reason to kill a New Hampshire snake.”  I would suggest that the next time you see a snake get excited that you are seeing one, that some are still here, managing to coexist with us – we are the threat, not snakes.