Moth Profile #3

With National Moth Week about a week-and-a-half away, it is time for another moth species profile.  Today’s species in the spotlight is the Clio Tiger Moth (Ectypia clio).  Like the Faithful Beauty (see previous post), this moth is in the subfamily Arctiinae of the Erebidae.

This is a striking white moth with black stripes on the forewings and thorax.  The stripes on the thorax are bordered with an orange stripe.  If one is able to see it, the abdomen is mostly orange with black spots.

The caterpillars feed on climbing milkweed vines (Funastrum).  I suspect that the black, white, and orange coloration of the adult is aposematic, warning potential predators of its unpalability.  Milkweeds are well-known for the secondary compounds (cardiac glycosides) that they contain to repel herbivores.  These compounds are toxic to vertebrates.  Any insect that can somehow manage to handle these chemicals gains a large measure of protection from predation by birds and other vertebrates.  In this regard, they are similar to Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and Queens (D. gilippus).

The Clio Tiger Moth was described to science in 1864 by Alpheus Spring Packard, Jr.  Packard was an entomologist and author who was originally trained as a physician, but spent most of his time studying insects, spiders, mollusks, and geology.  He studied under Louis Agassiz at Harvard- after obtaining his medical degree.  Plus, he was from Maine, where my family is from, so he must have been a good guy.

EctypiaclioVail31viii13 Ectypia clio at blacklight on Aug. 31, 2013, Vail, AZ


A Moth for the 4th of July


In honor of Independence Day, I offer this little tidbit on a wonderful moth.  The Faithful Beauty (Composia fidelissima) is one of the most gorgeous Lepidoptera in North America.  In the U.S., it is found only in subtropical southern Florida and the Keys.

Due to its red, white, and blue coloration, it is sometimes known as the ‘Uncle Sam Moth.’  Members of the Erebidae, Faithful Beauties fly during the daytime. The larvae feed on spurges (Euphorbiacaea) and are just as spectacular as the adults- brilliant scarlet with metallic blue raised tubercles.  The bright coloration throughout its life cycle strongly suggests that this moth is chemically protected from predators.

Faithful Beauties are in the tiger moth subfamily (Arctiinae), which includes many other beautiful moths.  There are many tiger moths in North America, but this species is the only member of a tropical group (pericopines) that occur in the United States.

The next time you visit the Sunshine State (or if you are a resident of Florida, of course), be on the lookout for this spectacular moth.

Photo by Alan Chin-Lee, courtesy of


A Really Cool Surprise

One of the great things about spending a lot of time out in the field is that it provides you an opportunity to witness things that most people never get to see.  For example, today I was leading the weekly bird walk at Agua Caliente Park in Tucson.  I have lead this same walk many times.  Today seemed to be like many other days on this walk- good people, good birds, good weather.  We quickly got on Broad-billed Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, the usual suspects.  Good birds, but nothing Earth shattering.

As we were listening to the beautiful melody of a Curve-billed Thrasher in full song , one of the participants saw something on the ground about 2o feet away.  ‘I think I see a javelin!’, the woman exclaimed.  Looking at where she was looking, there was indeed something on the ground.  It was good-sized.  Whatever it was, it was digging vigorously at the base of a mesquite.  I looked more closely.  One glimpse of the face eliminated any chance it was a javelina.

‘Badger!’, I yelled.  The striking white stripes on the black face make this one unmistakable mammal!  Quickly, I tried to get this big weasel in my spotting scope.  ‘Got ‘em!  Come take a look!’  This was cool- really cool!  Participants were oohing and aahing all over.  I heard several cameras take shots of this guy all at once.  Then, as we all basked in the badger’s glory, it got better!

Someone said, ‘It’s eating a ground squirrel!’  Taking a closer look, this was correct.  The badger was indeed having breakfast.  But it wasn’t a ground squirrel.  It was a gopher snake!  The mammal had the serpent between its paws and was chewing on it like a dog gnawing on a bone.  This was fantastic!  It watched us with no concern whatsoever.  I suppose it was quite confident that it could protect it’s meal from us.  After all, it was a badger.

After about 10 minutes, I realized that we were on a bird walk and it might be a good idea to look at some birds.  So somewhat reluctantly, I pulled the group away.  We went on to see other birds, but I don’t really think that anyone really cared.  We had the fantastic experience of sharing a small part of a badger’s world, something that may never happen again in our lives.

The take home message is this- get out there and take a look around. We live in an amazing place.  Go get your own unique sightings.




Moth Species Profile #2

It is well-known that moths fly at night and butterflies are on the wing during the day.  You would really not be paying attention not to know this.  However, as is often the case, there are exceptions to this rule.  There are moths that fly during the day, just like butterflies.  And, to make matters even more perplexing, many of these moths are brightly colored, again just like butterflies.  In this profile, we look at one of these day-flying moths- the Veined Ctenucha (Ctenucha venosa).

Quite attractive, Veined Ctenucha (pronounced the-NUKE-ah) have an orange head, blue thorax, and black wings with blue and purple iridescent highlights, that have yellowish stripes that give the moth its name.  The best way to separate a day-flying moth from a butterfly is to look at the antennae.  If they look like a Q-tip, you are looking at a butterfly.  If the antennae are thread-like or look like feathers, you are looking at a moth.  Veined Ctenuchas are regular flower visitors and will also often be seen at mud, imbibing salts and moisture.

There are several generations per year, with adults seen from April to November.  The caterpillars will feed on a variety of plants, but grasses (Poaceae) seem to be used routinely.  One grass that is noted in the literature is side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula).

Veined Ctenuchas have had a rather tortured taxonomic history.  Basically, it is a type of tiger moth, a group that includes some of North America’s most colorful moths.  Currently, tiger moths are in the Erebidae, with the Ctenuchas in the subfamily Ctenuchinae.  However, in the past, the group has been treated as either members of the Noctuidae (the owlet moths) or in their own family (the Arctiidae).  By the time you read this, they may have been moved yet again!

So look for these delightful moths on flowers or damp soil in your yard or when on  hike.  They are beautiful creatures that will capture your attention.



Moth Species Profile #1

As National Moth Week approaches (July 19-27, 2014), I thought that I would introduce readers to some of the moths that grace southern Arizona’s deserts, grasslands, and forests. So, in this first installment of the column, I decided to start with one of largest moths in southern Arizona.

Antheraea oculea is sometimes called the Western Polyphemus Moth. I consider this name to be something as a misnomer. The ‘true’ Polyphemus Moth (A. polyphemus) actually occurs farther west than the oculea. Maybe Oculea Moth is a better name?

Regardless of what we call it, this is a big, beautiful moth. Some females, which are larger than males, have wingspans of 5.5 inches! Very similar in appearance to the Polyphemus Moth on the dorsal surface, it is strikingly different from its cousin on the ventral side of the wings. Oculea has pale basal and marginal areas, but a rich chestnut brown median area. Identification is seldom and issue, however, as the two species do not overlap in range. The photo was taken in Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains in Pima County, Arizona on July 24, 2012.

A. oculea is found in Arizona and New Mexico south into northern Mexico. The flight period is from mid-May to early August. The caterpillar feed on various oaks.

The species was described in 1883 by amateur lepidopterist Berthold Neumoegen. For many decades, oculea was considered to be a subspecies of polyphemus. For example, it was classified as such by Douglas Ferguson in his classic 1972 fascicle on the Saturniidae, part of The Moths of America North of Mexico series. By 2009, Paul Opler and Jerry Powell recognize it as a distinct species in their Moths of Western North America.

Whatever we name this moth and however scientists decide to classify it does not detract one bit from the beauty and grandeur of this creature. Hopefully, we’ll get a look at it during our National Moth Week events.AntheraeaoculeaMaderaCny24vii12

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on June 19, 2014 at 1:47 am  Leave a Comment  Edit This
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National Moth Week is Coming Up!


The third annual National Moth Week is coming up! This year’s NMW is July 19-27 and there are events scheduled around the country. I will be leading blacklight nights during the week- one on Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains (on 7/20, starting at 7PM at Middle Bear Picnic Area) and another in Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas (on 7/26, starting at 7PM at Madera Picnic Area).

Many people dismiss moths as drab brown or gray creatures, many of which are agricultural pests. There are indeed some species that fit this description. However, moths are an extraordinarily diverse group of insects that are just as spectacular in their colors, patterns, and behaviors as their day-flying cousins, the butterflies. In fact, moth species outnumber butterfly species at least 10:1. Some experts push that number higher. So there are a lot of moths out there for us to admire, identify (or attempt to identify, anyway), photograph, or just revel in their presence.

So no matter where you live, look into attending a Moth Night event! They are a lot of fun and I guarantee that you will see creatures that you never knew existed!


To whet your appetite for moths, I offer the following photo of Syntomeida hampsonii. The photo was taken in Pena Blanca Canyon (Santa Cruz County) on 9 August 2009. It is a member of the Erebidae, subfamily Ctenuchinae. To me, it looks like a wasp mimic even though it flies at night.

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on June 17, 2014 at 3:17 am  Leave a Comment  Edit This
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Sometimes You Just Get Lucky


I was recently leading a dragonfly walk at Agua Caliente Park. I had several children and adults in the group and we were seeing some cool dragons- Roseate Skimmer, Flame Skimmer, and Mexican Amberwing, to name a few. I was a few feet in front of the others, scouting for more odonates. I was intently searching vegetation on the margins of the pond.

I took a step and when I put my left foot down, the ground began to move. ‘That’s strange,’ I thought as I looked down. I was dumbstruck to see that I had put my foot down on a Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake! I jumped up and back and the snake quickly crawled into the dense vegetation. My heart was now firmly in my throat! I looked back and noticed that none of the other participants had seen what had happened. After a few deep breaths, I got myself together and finished our walk.

Since moving to Arizona, I have seen many rattlesnakes. Some have rattled, most have not. I believe that these serpents are fantastic. They are near the pinnacle of snake evolution. They are interesting in their ecology and natural history. They are common inhabitants of the southwest.

But they are also capable of causing serious medical concerns if one were to be bitten. Always look where you are placing your hands and feet when in rattlesnake country. If you hear a snake rattling, find the snake and move away from it. Don’t blindly jump because you may very well land on top of the snake. Do not antagonize them- that can make the situation much worse. If you bitten, stay calm, remove any jewelry in the vicinity of the bite, and get to medical help as soon as possible.

I got very lucky that day. You may not be as lucky as I was. Be careful and enjoy these wonderful desert denizens!

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on June 17, 2014 at 2:51 am  Leave a Comment  Edit This
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Another Cool Beetle

Megetra punctata. Garden Canyon, Cochise Co., AZ

In my last post, I described a chance encounter with a beautiful beetle. A day earlier I observed another incredible coleopteran while doing scouting work for the upcoming North American Butterfly Association (NABA) meeting. While driving through the grasslands that lead into Garden Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains with Fred Heath and John Rhodes, we noticed some mud that was attracting a lot of butterflies. We had Cloudless Sulphur, Sleepy Orange, Marine Blue, and Dotted Roadside-Skipper obtaining nutrients from the damp soil. Soon, movement out of the corner of my eye garnered my attention.

Looking down, I observed a very strange beetle. It had a black body with orange rings around the inflated abdomen. What was most bizarre were the very small wings that this bug possessed. With the large body size and tiny wings, there was no way that this thing could get airborne!

We were looking at Megetra punctata, a type of blister beetle. These beetles, in the family Meloidae, are so named because they possess a chemical (cantharidin) in their blood that can produce blisters on those that come in contact with them. The chance that this could happen is increased by the fact that the blood can be released from pores in the body, a process called reflex bleeding.

I had seen several species of blister beetle over the years, but I had never encountered this species. It was almost comical to look at this robust beetle and the tiny little wings that it possessed.

It was a very nice opportunistic glimpse into the life of a remarkable insect!

Spectacular Buprestid

Lampetis drummondi in Box Canyon, Pima Co., AZ.

I have had the great pleasure of spending a lot of time out in the field lately, mainly scouting for the upcoming North American Butterfly Association meeting in Sierra Vista. While scouring the Huachuca and Santa Rita Mountains, I have observed many cool butterflies- Mexican Fritillary, Two-tailed Swallowtail, Ares Metalmark, Juniper Hairstreak, and a host of others.

In the process of searching for all things lepidopteran, I have seen some other wonderful beasties. Yesterday I was in Box Canyon in the Santa Ritas with Mary Klinkel, Fred Heath, and John Rhodes when we happened upon a spectacular beetle. Based on the bullet-shaped body and large oval eyes, we immediately knew we were looking at a member of the Buprestidae. Commonly called jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles, these coleopterans are very popular with collectors due to their bright, iridescent colors. This fellow certainly lived up to the jewel part of the name, sporting blue legs and head with black wings that had patches of yellow. It was big, about two inches long.

We were looking at a gorgeous Lampetis drummondi. There are three North American species in the genus, mostly restricted to the Southwest. Larvae feed on a great variety of plants in several different families. In southern Arizona, these beetles are using mostly mesquite and acacias.

After taking several photos of the bug, it had had enough and flew off. It was a great sighting in a beautiful location! I can’t wait to see another one!

Red-bordered Satyr taking a rest along the Comfort Springs Trail in Carr Canyon in the Huachucas.

Satyrs are one of my favorite groups of butterflies. They have a characteristic bouncy flight style that makes them easy to recognize. Mostly clad in earthtone browns and reds, there are 12 species found in Arizona.

My personal favorite is the Red-bordered Satyr (Gyrocheilus patrobas), a large, dark, very distinctive butterfly. These things show up late to the annual butterfly party, not seen until late August. The adults remain on the wing until October.

Red-bordered Satyrs are unique- large (for a satyr) and very dark. The underside is brownish black, with maroon and violet on the margin of the hindwing. The top side (which is best seen in flight, as they rarely open their wings when perched) has a reddish brown band on the hindwing.

The caterpillars of this butterfly feeds on bullgrass (Muhlenbergia emersleyi) and are not often seen without a dedicated search effort.

Mountain woodlands are the home of these magnificent butterflies. They can often be observed obtaining nutrients from mud alongside streams and seeps in canyons bedecked with oaks and pines.

So be on the lookout for these gems if you are on a hike in the Sky Island mountains in the next few weeks. They are a delight!

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