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Cecropia: beautiful lepidopteran Behemoth.

As a rule, moths don't receive much attention, especially compared to their flashier cousins, the butterflies. And what attention moths do receive is often negative, such as in the grade B Japanese horror film "Mothra" and the death's head moths placed in the mouths of victims in Silence of the Lambs. Some moths are destructive because of their penchant for eating through fabric and, when in the larval stage, defoliating trees, but that's another issue.

Moths and butterflies are grouped together in the order of insects known as Lepidoptera. Although butterflies win the popularity contest, they are far outnumbered by moths, some of which could rival butterflies in appearance as well. According to the Lepidopterist Society's web site, "the ratio of known moth species to known butterfly species is about 8 to 1, or, in other words, for every butterfly there are about eight moths." The two groups combined make up the second largest order of insects after beetles.

In the world of moths, the cecropia moth or cecropia silkmoth (Hyalophora cecropia) is the largest moth found in North America, with a wingspan of five to seven inches. It can live just about anywhere, and has been observed as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico.

The wings of the cecropia moth are predominantly brown, with a yellow stripe on the front wing and a reddish stripe on the rear wing. These moths also have a white and red, comma-shaped "eyespot" on all four wing segments (see above), as well as light markings on the wings' outer edges, making them look as though they are coated in frost. Also known as the robin moth (presumably because of its coloring), the cecropia's body is rectangular and colored dark red, with white spots toward the tail. The male is smaller than the female. Antennae are short and feathery.

Like butterflies, moths undergo the process of metamorphosis. Larval caterpillars molt or shed their skin several times before creating a large spindle-shaped cocoon in late summer or early fall. Before the caterpillar spins a cocoon, however, it also changes from its original color of black to green during the molting process.

To escape predation, the cocoon--attached to a twig on a host tree--is usually constructed in a dark, protected area. The caterpillar inside changes to a pupa, the stage in which it spends the winter. It remains in the cocoon until the following spring, when it emerges as an adult moth. This process of marked change in form from caterpillar to pupa to moth is known as metamorphosis, a scientific term which has its roots in the Greek word for transformation.

Ironically, after all those months in a cocoon, the moth lives for only two weeks after emergence. During that time, the adult moths mate, and the adult females lay eggs. Females exude a scent that attracts males across distances of many miles. In the Northeast, cecropia moths generally mate during the wee hours. When the couple separates, the male takes wing again to seek another female for mating.

The female lays hundreds of eggs in rows of two to six on both sides of the leaves of small host trees, including but not limited to maple, cherry, plum, willow, elm, and ash. The eggs hatch in ten days to two weeks, and the young larvae feed on the leaves.

Adult cecropia moths do not eat anything during their short lives. All food required to fly, mate and lay eggs is consumed during the larval or "instar" life stages. Unfortunately for them, cecropia moths have many natural predators such as birds, small mammals (particularly bats), amphibians, and other insects. Consequently, they may not even enjoy an average life span, brief as it is. Their only purpose is to mate and produce offspring.

Because cecropia moths are especially large and colorful, even people who have no particular interest in entomology are drawn to them. Despite their wide-ranging habitat, however, cecropias are not very abundant, and sightings are infrequent. Most moths, including cecropias, are nocturnal and are most likely to be seen at night. Male cecropia moths, in particular, are attracted to light, and the best places to look for them are areas illuminated by streetlights or porch lights.

Consider yourself lucky if you happen upon one of North America's largest moths in your summer wanderings!

Information for this article was obtained from many sources, including: eNature.com, The Nature Conservancy, USGS, and the University of Kentucky, Department of Entomology.

Bernadette LaManna is a contributing editor for the Conservationist.
COPYRIGHT 2004 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
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Author:LaManna, Bernadette
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:756
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