Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 10, 2008

Polyphemus Awaits

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:48 pm

  If good things come in small packages, then imagine the kind of things that can come from big packages. The last time I got a really big package it contained a big beautiful Epiphone Broadway guitar. I could argue that it doesn’t get any better than that, but I won’t – there are bound to be those Gibson and Martin types out there ready to burst my bubble. But, I do possess another big package whose contents still await uncovery (this is not a real word, but I am revealing it here for the first time). No one can slight the contents of this package. Like my Epiphone box, my other big container contains a thing of beauty which combines subtle shades of tawny brown with brash flashes of pearly opalescence, but I can’t open it.  This package needs to open itself.  It is a Polyphemus cocoon (take a look here).

  “Big,” is a relative term, of course.  Compared to the guitar box, my cocoon is a small thing. But, since most moth cocoons are relatively small affairs, this one stands out as a super-sized menu item.  Because the caterpillar that constructed it was Vienna sausage sized (see here) and the moth that will eclose (not a made up word) from it will have a 6 inch wingspan, it is appropriate that this is a member of a group labeled as the Giant Silk Moths.

  The papery cocoon is a distinctive product built to withstand the brunt of winter.  Late last summer, the larvae snuggled within the protective folds of a few leaves and proceeded to weave a tough brown bag of silk about itself. It then imbued the fibers with a chalky white fluid that hardened into a water resistant coating. As a pupa, the insect now waits inside for that magic day in June when it will break free of its silken bounds. Unlike other giant silk moth cocoons (such as the Cecropia Moth we discussed in an earlier Naturespeak) Polyphemus cocoons don’t stay suspended but instead fall to earth at some point. This independent egg-shaped form is what identifies this moth’s cocoon from those of the other “giants.”

  It is entirely appropriate to name this creature after a giant of Greek legend. Polyphemus was the Cyclops made famous in Homer’s Odyssey. He was the one eyed son of Poseidon and the nymph Thoosa who suffered the proverbial “sharp stick in the eye” at the hands of his captives. His name means “round eye” in Greek. It so happens that the moth sharing the title with this poker faced cyclops has two of these round oculars on his back wings (see here).  Each is highlighted in black and blue with a translucent central pupil. Yes, I can hear those Gibson people snidely observing at this point that by possessing two eyes, the Polyphemus Moth is not very cyclopean, but to them I say “get over it.”

 I eagerly await the emergence of this moth in a few months and promise to report back when this event occurs. He (or she) will open the package from within with a spit wad of enzymes to dissolve the silk.  I’ve seen reference to a pair of spurs on the forewings that assist in cutting these fibers, but I have never seen this feature before. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a giant island dwelling Cyclops either, but that doesn’t make them any less real (nor do I own a true Gibson or Martin guitar).

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