Polyphemus was the name of the man eating giant cyclops from Homer’s epic The Odyssey. The legend of the cyclops actually arose from the discovery of large skulls that had a single hole in what would be the forehead. Today we know these skulls were not the skulls of large single-eyed giants but of elephants, with the large hole actually the modified nostril where the trunk attaches to the skull. There are, however, other single eyed giants lurking in the darkness.
This giant’s eyes are not on its head they are hidden beneath a furry shield. Only when you get too close will this behemoth flair its eye at you in an attempt to startle or frighten you. This giant does not eat men or anything at all for that matter. This giant has eyes but lack a mouth, it lives for only a couple of days and then dies. This giant is the Polyphemus Moth of North America.
Polyphemus Moths are a member of the giant silk worm family of moths. They are among the largest moths in North America. They spend 99% of their lives in either the caterpillar (larval) or cocoon (pupal) form of life. When this moth emerges from its silken cocoon in early June it is already nearly a year old. It started life as a tiny caterpillar hardly bigger than a speck. In a series of five instars, or stages, it grew into a fat green caterpillar as thick and as long as your index finger. Late last summer it spun a cocoon and shed its skin for a final time. It spend the frigid winter within its silken tomb rearranging itself into a moth. The genetic action of this is absolutely mind boggling.
The Polyphemus Moth, like other Giant Silkworm Moths does not feed in its adult stage. They emerge from their cocoons with only one purpose in life, reproduction. The males have large feather-like antennae that they use to detect pheremones, chemical signals, released by the female. The males may fly as far as 10 miles in a night in search of a female.
I had a student bring in this amazing moth. It was one of those insects that I had dreamed about seeing as a child. It was in my Golden Guide to Insects and I always wanted to see one. I took my pictures and then released this male back into the cool night air to, hopefully, find a mate. In his world he truly is King.
If you would like to see some photos of a Cecropia Moth, the larger relative of the Polyphemus Moth check out my blog post from last year click on this LINK
Up Next: Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing