Thursday, 5 May 2011

The emperor has no mouth

   A few days ago my friend Dennis told me of a giant moth that had appeared in his house one evening, he shooed it out and the next morning found it resting on an outside wall. I raced round to see his visitor. It really was impressive; 14 cm across with ocelli like owls' eyes staring out of wings that look to have been dipped in sepia ink.

   It turned out to be a Giant Emperor Moth (Saturnia pyri), a magnificent creature that lives throughout southern Europe and is Europe's largest moth. I imagine the generic name Saturnia refers to its range, 'Saturnia' being a poetic term for the Italian peninsula, whilst pyri makes reference to the pyriform (pear-shaped) nature of the cocoon. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of fruit trees. Like most moths, the imago (the adult insect) doesn't feed at all, its mouth parts are vestigial.
   This one appeared to be a female as it didn't have the large feathery antennae that the males use to locate the pheromones generated by the females. The male's natural life is sometimes of only a few hours duration, his mate usually lasts a week or so.

   There is an apple orchard close by Dennis's house so it seems the moth was simply waiting for her suitors to find her. Once fertilized she exhausts herself laying eggs on the apple leaves and then, having lived her life in magisterial silence, she quietly joins the silent majority.