A Startling Beauty

One sultry, summer afternoon, I stood on a grimy subway platform in Greenwich Village, in a throng of weary, hot commuters. One by one, as we became aware of an amazing sight, grim faces softened and smiles appeared. Right above our heads, floating in the dusty air, was a huge cecropia moth! What a splendid creature it was. It brought a moment of joyful wonderment to those jaded New Yorkers.
The cecropia is a member of the order Lepidoptera, and the family Saturniidae, our native giant silkworm moths. In fact, the cecropia is the largest moth in North America! Other members of this family are: the beautiful luna moth, the promethea moth, the polyphemus moth, and the io moth.
The caterpillars of the giant silkworm moths, although large, do not occur in sufficient numbers to cause extensive damage to the trees and shrubs they feed upon. Among these are the wild cherry, apple, plum, birch, maple, elderberry, lilac and willow; in fact, they dine on over fifty species of plants.
From a tiny white egg laid on the undersurface of a leaf, a tiny black larva emerges. It has six little feet near its head and many false feet as well, with which it can crawl along. It immediately begins the work of its life – to eat and eat, until its skin is so tight that it must split and be shed. The larva, or caterpillar, is now a dull orange color. When it outgrows its orange skin, it "molts" once more, and emerges as a yellow creature. The next molting produces a green caterpillar, decorated with rows of gaudy bumps, or tubercules – blue, red and yellow. After the next molt, the caterpillar has the same coloration. It gorges itself for two more weeks, and is, finally, more than three inches long. Now it is ready to make its cocoon.
The caterpillar spins a silken thread from its mouth, winds it many times about its body, and with it, attaches itself lengthwise to a twig. When the caterpillar is fully encased in its strong, well-camouflaged, brown cocoon, it becomes a "pupa." During this stage, the astonishing process of metamorphosis occurs. The body of the helpless pupa is changing from that of a caterpillar to that of a beautiful, winged moth.
In the spring, the adult moth, aided by two little hooks on either side of its body, pulls itself out through a weak spot at one end of the cocoon. Its large, velvety wings are crumpled and damp. The moth rests, then spreads its wings and pumps its body fluid through them. The wings expand, then dry. They are spectacular, five to six inches across!
The ground color of the wings is a rusty grayish-brown. Their outer margins are tawny in hue. The wings are crossed by white bands bordered in red, and each wing sports a white and red crescent near its center. Each of the upper wings has a red "eye-spot" near its apex. (Eye-spots on wings may be designed either to frighten off enemies, or conversely, to attract their attention away from the soft, vulnerable body.) The cecropia's furry body is reddish-orange with a white collar and white rings on the abdomen. The antennae resemble feathers.
The adult cecropia has mouth parts that are so undeveloped that it cannot eat. It lives just long enough to find its mate and reproduce. The male cecropia is attracted to a scent the female produces which he can perceive at a distance of three miles! After mating, the female has just enough strength to lay her tiny eggs, several hundred in number, and affix them to the undersurfaces of leaves. Both parents then die, but the emerging baby caterpillars continue the ancient cycle.


More Articles by Miriam Sanders