Luna Moth (Actias Luna)

Most people think of butterflies as being beautiful and moths as being plain or even ugly. For the most part I agree, in that the butterflies I know of are brightly coloured in an array of oranges, yellows, blues and greens, while the moths I’ve seen are brown and white. They still have cool patterns on them, but don’t hold a candle to butterflies for sheer beauty. Still, there are some moths that can rival butterflies, and today’s animal is one of those.

The luna moth is native to North America, and lives in eastern Canada, the mid-eastern and eastern United States, and northern Mexico. They live in forests, particularly those with hickory, walnut, sumacs and persimmon trees. These moths are quite common, but most people don’t see them because of their exceptionally short life span, and because they are nocturnal.

A luna moth on a branch. They are very good at camouflaging themselves in greenery.

A luna moth on a branch. They are very good at camouflaging themselves in greenery.

If you did see a luna moth, though, you would recognize it instantly. They are bright green, and huge. Some moths can have a wingspan of over 7 inches, though they are more regularly between 3 to 4.5 inches. The shape of the adult is quite elegant, with long tapered wings, and eyespots to confuse predators. As caterpillars, they are green with hair and spines, and yellow or black dots on each side.

Once luna moth caterpillars hatch from their eggs, they wander around for a while before munching on whatever plant they were laid on. They undergo five moults before turning into a cocoon, and tend to leave their siblings after the first two to three moults. Right before cocooning, the caterpillar empties its guts of any food or fluid. It takes about two weeks for the caterpillar to transform into a moth.

A luna moth caterpillar, munching away.

A luna moth caterpillar, munching away.

Once the adult moth emerges from its cocoon, it must let its wet and tiny wings fully form. This usually take about two hours, and involves the moth pumping the wings back an forth to force fluids into them. One of the biggest problems the adult moth faces is eating. The main reason eating is such an issue for luna moths is because they do not have mouths. This oversight means the poor moths starve to death in a week, which is just enough time for the moths to find a mate and lay eggs. To this end, female moths are equipped with a powerful pheromone that attracts any male moths that sense it. Once a male has the scent of the pheromone in his head, he makes a beeline for the female, even crashing through leaves and branches to get there. This mad dash to make love makes sense when you only have one week to fulfill your ultimate purpose.

I can’t imagine how disappointing it must be to be a moth and finally achieve my beautiful final stage, only to die in a week from starvation. It’s just not fair. Still, at least we can appreciate the plight of this poor animal.

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