Marvelous Midnight Visitor
Robert J. Nuelle, Jr.
In the month of May, over the weekend of May 23 through the 25th, Robert Nuelle, III and Robert Nuelle, Jr. visited the East Texas Natural History Collection to complete some outstanding tasks and continue the multiyear Wood County Distributional Studies project. While we were there we managed to complete most of our curatorial duties and got in 2 nights of moth lighting down at the Boardwalk.
The lighting produced some very unusual results, including quite a few moth species never seen before in the Boardwalk environs. We made several forays into the Sandy lands Prairie areas during
the day searching for Yucca Giant Skipper’s and other representative butterflies. We did in fact see a single Yucca Giant Skipper but did not manage to capture it, so no record will be entered into
the study for the species in 2014. This study is featured on the front page of the East Texas Natural History Collection website and has been created as a working project within the iNaturalist
Late in the evening on Saturday, May 24 at approximately 11:45 PM we were returning from the lighting site and had just passed the faculty housing complex clustered near the handicapped cut off for the Boardwalk. The lights in this area have recently been upgraded to extremely bright bulbs and as a result the area is flooded with light. As we were driving Robert brought the vehicle to a screeching halt underneath one of these very bright lights. He placed the vehicle and Park and hurriedly exited screaming for a net which was thrown to him, he clapped the net down on the ground and then started exuberantly requesting that we exit the van to view the moth that he had just captured.
This moth we believe is the 1st ever capture for wood County and we can find no records of this species being captured anywhere in the surrounding counties. The moth is a very large giant silkworm moth known as the Cecropia. The moth that he had captured was a freshly eclosed female of the species Hyalophora cecropia. This magnificent species has been captured recently (2013 season) in a border County with Oklahoma, however even though wood County contains many food plants suitable for sustaining a population of this moth none have been seen or captured by us or Dr. Goodwin over the last 5 to 6 years.
We carefully placed this female moth into a glassine envelope, in the hopes that she would deposit fertile eggs which we could then rear. In the giant silkworm family the females typically fly only after having been fertilized by mail. These moths cannot eat as adults, they must survive as long as possible on whatever fat reserves are left over from their time as a caterpillar. The females wings were nearly perfect and we theorize that in fact she was attracted to these blazingly bright new lights and essentially stunned herself by flying into the light enclosure. The glassine envelope was placed into a brown paper lunch sack and maintained in the dark environment to facilitate her egg laying behavior.
At approximately 2 o’clock in the morning we went back down to the sheets new the Boardwalk and found a male Luna moth sitting on the sheets as well as a large variety of typical species. At approximately 6 AM we returned to the lighting site to do our last collection and then break down the equipment for transport. To our astonishment sitting on the bottom of the sheet was a large male cecropia moth. Robert quickly gathered him up and he was immediately processed for the collection. It is worthy to note that on this Saturday we were trying out a brand-new extremely bright 400 W Mercury vapor bulb at the lighting site. This new brighter bulb was furnished to us by a friend of the collection named Bill Witteman. He consistently lights with this brighter bulb and has great results, so we wanted to test it out. On the previous night we had lit with our usual 175 W Mercury vapor bulb and we got typical results for the habitat but did not call in a single Cecropia.
To capture a male and female of this species within a 6 hour timeframe, in an environment that has never produced a credible record of the species, begs a question:
Is there a population of Hyalophora cecropia present in Wood County?
As noted previously there are plenty of plants that serve as a host plant for the caterpillars including several population of Willow, Maples and the American sweetgum. Wood County is certainly well within the historical range of this species however in Texas this species of giant silkworm has seen population declines particularly in the eastern half of the state. In a subsequent conversation with Dr. Richard Peigler, a specialist in the giant silkworm family of moths, he believes that it is possible for a population of Hyalophora cecropia to exist in Wood County without ever being detected using moth lights, because it is not common for the species to be attracted to lights.
We will be watching out for additional records of this species in the area. We have in fact managed to obtain ova from the female and currently have approximately 40 or so caterpillars being reared on American sweetgum. We will post progress reports and photos of the caterpillars on this blog on a regular basis as they go through their 6 different caterpillar stages on their way to becoming pupae.
Whether or not the extra wattage in the campus bulbs and in the bulb that was used down at the Boardwalk had anything to do with attracting the species will be something that will require additional experimentation, however this is a wonderful species to add to the growing list of new species for Wood County.
The East Texas Natural History Collection is proud to be the first North American Host and partner with the International Journal of Entomology and Zoology Studies. The Journal of Entomology and Zoology Studies is a peer reviewed international Open Access Journal which is abstracted in various reputed databases. The Journal provides a platform with the aim of motivating students and personnel in all fields of Zoology.
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