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May 14, 2014

DELICATE GIANTS

Over the years, we have found a range of interesting insects, butterflies and spiders around our offices but none compare to this beauty found resting on our parking lot.

Antheraea Polyphemus is one of the larger moths, part of the family Saturniidae or Giant Silk Moths. Common throughout most of the US, Polyphemus lives in a variety of habitats but usually where undergrowth is available for concealment.

Our specimen is at the extreme in terms of size with a wing span just over 51/2 inches. We know it is a male due to its two exquisitely delicate, antennae shaped like ferns. Females have thinner, less showy antennae.

The colorings are also breathtaking. The underside of the wings display a variety of shades of brown, cream and grey, interspersed with ripples of darker and lighter shades in a perfect camouflage for brush. But it is the upper wing surface that are the stars of the show, especially the hind wings. Here, initially hidden from view are two large eyes. Half an inch in diameter, the ‘pupil’ is transparent, ringed with a brown yellow ‘iris’ and surrounded by the black ‘eye shadow’ more typical of owls than moths. And therein lies the rationale for the eyes. An unsuspecting predator such as an American Robin may launch its attack only to be met by the fierce some sight of these two ‘owl eyes’ as the moth extends its wings.

Polyphemus have some other interesting characteristics. They do not eat during their brief lifespan! In fact, they do not even have mouth parts. All their energy is derived from their earlier life form as a caterpillar. Typically, it takes ten days to hatch the egg into a caterpillar and 5-6 weeks to metamorphose into its full size as a moth. Unsurprisingly, given the moth’s inability to eat, the caterpillars eat voraciously.

Finally, Polyphemus are nocturnal so while common in the US, they are not observed as often as butterflies. During the day, they shelter in the undergrowth and are hard to see for all predators.

We were lucky. This one had mated and was at the end of its lifespan. It was barely alive when Danny spotted it and it makes for some beautiful pictures with both a regular camera and under a stereo microscope