Polyphemus: the One-eyed Giant

I was chatting with a co-worker last Friday when we heard a plop and rustle from another co-worker’s desk.

“What is that?”

Something was moving under a piece of paper.  Curiosity took over – you just never know what you might find crawling about on a naturalist’s desk!  I went over and there was a newly emerged moth, wings all crumpled, abdomen swollen with fluid, crawling around trying to find some place high and safe where it could rest and get the liquid into those wings.

I gathered it up and went in search of the desk’s regular occupant, who was out leading a school program.

The moth was none too happy about this turn of events and struggled valiantly to get away.

Eventually it ended up on the base of my elephant ears plant, where it blended in beautifully with the old dried leaf stems.

DSC_0022 DSC_0023I watched it over the course of the afternoon as its wings slowly expanded, the abdomen slowly shrinking.





The empty cocoon lay on the desk still.  It was a clue to which moth this was.  I knew it was one of the silk moths, probably cecropia or polyphemus.  The coccon confirmed it:  polyphemus.


We knew from the very large, feathery antennae that it was a male.  Their elegant feelers are designed for one purpose:  to detect the pheremones of any nearby females.


By late afternoon, the wings were mostly ready, but the right hind wing still wasn’t quite right.

DSC_0031 DSC_0039 DSC_0041

Enough time had passed that it probably was never going to be 100%.  But would it be enough for it to fly?

Before we took him outside to test it, I wanted to capture the transparency of that “eye” on the wing – it is scale-less, so it appears completely clear.  The polyphemus moth is named for Polyphemos, of Greek mythology, who was the son of Poseidon and Thoosa and who was a cyclops:  a one-eyed “monster.”  The eyes on the wings of this large moth are used to confuse predators and hopefully give the moth time to escape the gaping maw of a bat or other predator in hot pursuit.


So, we took him outside and tried to place him on a tree, but the wind was a bit much and kept blowing him to the ground.  And then he got antsy – just wouldn’t cooperate with our assistance.  Well…in all fairness, he probably thought we wanted to eat him, too.


He wasn’t quite ready to fly, but he certainly gave it the old college try!  Eventually we placed him under the pear tree, where he could continue to “age,” and hopefully before nightfall would be able to fly off in search of females.

DSC_0059Like many of these giant moths, the adult polyphemus has no mouth parts – it lives only long enough to pass on its genetic material…if it is lucky.


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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