They Might Be Giants

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

We don't even have a jar big enough to catch it in." Those were the first words out of my mother's mouth when she saw the giant moth. About 5 or 6 inches wide in wingspan, it was fluttering against a tiled wall-in our bathroom, of all places. It appeared to be covered with something resembling green fur, and it was huge. It finally stopped moving and clung to the shower curtain. My sister and I caught it in a shoe box and let it go outside.

I later learned the moth we saw that night was a luna moth, one of about 13 species of giant silk moths found in Missouri. Members of the Saturniidae family, they have silky, carpet plush wings, delicate legs and inviting furry bodies. "Velvety" may be the best word to describe them. The Saturniids are the largest members of the Order Lepidoptera, or butterflies and moths, and are among the most spectacular animals found in North America's forests and neighborhoods.

The majority of the world's 1,500 species of Saturniids live in the tropics. About a dozen species are found in Europe, including the cold reaches of the North Cape of Norway and part of Siberia. About 50 species reside in North America. No Saturniids have been known to become extinct, but many are endangered, especially the tropical inhabitants.

In Missouri, we are most likely to see giant silk moths after midnight in late May or June. Many people wait years to see one, in part because the adult stage of these colorful and largest of all moths lasts for only about one week.

The giant silk moths begin life like most Lepidoptera. Usually at night, females emit pheromones to attract mates. Males "smell" the pheromone up to miles away with the help of sensitive receptors located at the tips of their featherlike antennae. Males often fly great distances to reach females and, once united, couples remain together about a day while they mate.

Female moths usually lay eggs the next day. They search for trees or shrubs that provide nutritious leaves for the new larvae. The largest Saturniid found in North America, the Cecropia moth, may lay more than 100 eggs, usually on the undersides of leaves on oak, hickory and other hardwoods. Cecropias may have a wing span of up to 7 inches. Females fly from leaf to leaf, sometimes tree to tree, dispersing their eggs. Female Saturniids die

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