Wild Thing: By the Light of the Moon
Luna moths make ghostly appearances at night.
By Erin Kedzie
Many years ago, my father called me out of bed to take a look at something on the front porch. The moon was full, and it must have been eons past my 10-year-old bedtime. But there was a point of interest: a ghostly green little phantom at rest on our brick pillar.
“It’s a night butterfly!” I construed.
“No,” he corrected me. “That’s a luna moth.”
Later I would call it by its popular misnomer, “lunar” moth. But either way, this saturniid is worthy of its title. Recognized for its swallow-tail wings that span as wide as 4.5 inches across, the luna moth flies only at night, a springtime specter hailing from East Texas. The female lays eggs on the undersides of black walnut leaves; antennae are full and wispy.
James Petiver, an apothecary and amateur naturalist, first logged the insect only about 300 years ago. Linnaeus took the wheel in 1758 and named it Actias luna. Its family name, Saturniidae, is a reference to the ringed eyespots, evocative of Saturn and its elliptical hoops.
Though the moth is rarely seen because of its moony lifestyle, its maturation follows a similar process to that of other moths. The female lays around 200 mottled eggs at a time, and the larvae hatch as lime-green caterpillars. Each one undergoes five instars, or stages of molting, and then veils itself in a cocoon and outer sleeve of leaves. As a silkmoth, it uses homespun silk to bind together the small pod.
Two to three weeks later, the cocoon splits and a little ghost resurrects.
Like a mirage that appears and then fades, a luna moth’s life expectancy is about a week. An adult moth doesn’t even have a mouth. Its purpose is singular — its only goal is to mate before the hourglass is emptied. That’s why lunas are a rare sight.
Though they are not listed as endangered (nor even as threatened) in Texas, they are becoming increasingly sparse due to light pollution and pesticides, so treasure your encounters. It’s not often that you find something that looks like it should be at the flying end of a Chinese kite, but ebbs away like an apparition.
Common Name: Luna moth
Scientific Name: Actias luna
Habitat: Found in hardwood forests; greatly attracted to lights at night
Diet: Caterpillars eat tree leaves such as walnut, hickory, sweetgum, maple, oak and others
Did You Know? The male antennae are more feathery than those of a female
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page