Sunday, August 28, 2011

Face to face with the Atlas

People are often amazed, at my ability in spotting small and often unnoticeable living things as they creep around in the undergrowth. Often, when I spy a particularly camouflaged moth, or a small reptile that resembles nothing more than a twig they would often ask, "How did you notice that Cyren?! How did you do it?" Often times I would just laugh it off, a joke or two here and there. "I'm psychic!" I would say, or "I can speak to them, didn't you know?" In fact, years and years of such comments are probably precisely what earned me the affectionate nickname "The Butterfly Whisperer" amongst my peers. But, if I were to be completely honest about it, the truth is, I really don't quite know how I do it. If I had to take a gander, I would say that such things - observational skills that is - come from so much years and practice as to become almost second nature to me. Indeed, I do believe similar skills can be observed in other naturalists - remember how Steve Irwin could spot a snake crawling up a tree, hiding behind a bunch of leaves from several meters away? - and photographers as well. It's just that, when you know where to look, and what to look for, chances are there will be many things that you can see. Some animals, however, have no need for hiding and for whatever reason seem to flaunt their presence either in terms of brilliant colors or just sheer size. This moth is probably one of those which one most certainly cannot miss.

Atlas Moth
So this, my friends is the adult male of the Atlas moth (attacus atlas) and although it is pictured here, resting on one of the screens on the window of the common tea-room of the School of Arts and Social Sciences, I originally found this moth perched - quite high up and out of reach - on the roof of the Monash University foyer. An interesting fact about the Atlas Moth is that is named after the Titan of Greek mythology, a name which is quite apt because - I never seem to tire of telling anybody who will listen (read hereand here) - it is the largest species of butterfly or moth in the world, with some specimens boasting a total wing area of up to 62 square inches!!! Compare, for instance, the size of the specimen I found with the size of my palm. Note though that the moth I found is a male and are therefore, significantly smaller than their female counterparts.

Size comparison of the male Atlas Moth with my open palm.
The Atlas Moth is really a giant silk moth, and like other moths from the family Saturnidae, they have evolved so that the adult insect no longer possesses any mouthparts with which to feed. Instead they must live off the fat reserves they have built up while eating voraciously as larvae (and they really are quite large themselves. See for yourself here). One might wonder, to what purpose does this serve in terms of the evolutionary process and natural selection - surely, logic would point to greater survival for an insect who is able to feed - but what I think really happened, was quite simply that Saturniid moths, due to their large size and brilliantly colored and patterned wings probably didn't survive long in the wild anyway - wear and tear to their wings and predation probably accounted for many of their deaths, and so eventually evolved so that their larval energy would be used more efficiently in shoring up the numbers of the species. In other words, energy that was once used to create the insect's digestive tract, were probably focused upon other aspects of the insect's biology, the reproductive system, perhaps, thus increasing the fertility and fecundity of the species all-together.

Large enough to be a masquerade mask! 
On another note, how I finally managed to procure the moth is yet another interesting story to tell. Being quite high up and out of reach, there was no way I could have reached the moth with my bare hands. Logic would seem to point towards me using my extendable butterfly net to whisk it down from its perch on the ceiling but a moment of though reminded me that I had left it quite carelessly at Ray's yesterday night and another moment of mental calculation told me it wouldn't be long enough anyway. Indeed, all I seemed to have upon my person at that moment was my laptop bag, my phone, a tupperware of noodles bound with a rubber-band, and two rather cranky hermit crabs who did not appreciate being jostled around in their little container. Trying to make the best of the situation, and I would be damned to turn my back on such a fine specimen, I finally settled on using the rubberband to shoot the thing down. It had to be done most carefully, however. Too much of a force and I could actually destroy the insect's beautiful wings. Too little of a force and it would probably just ignore my attempts to disturb it from its roost. A couple of well aimed, and well judged shots later, however, I had the moth on the go, and from its feeble attempts at maintaining altitude, I surmised that the creature was already nearing the end of its life. I waited for it to crash, rather clumsily onto the floor, before bagging it and taking it back for a closer inspection.

Finding a new roost on the hem of my shirt.
Made you look.
"Lemme touch it! I wanna touch it!" Even Ray wanted to get in on some of the fun

Truly this was the highlight after such a long, and tiring, and tedious week! And just yesterday I was pondering on how I could have gone to so many butterfly zoos in my time, and have never ever taken a photo with the magnificent atlas moth!

Life is a frail moth flying, caught in the webs of the years that pass.

1 comment:

Brittanie said...

OMG! You got one?! It's freaking gorgeous! Everyone's fine over here. Thanks for the blessings. ♥ I want an Atlas moth!

I'm gonna try and get Lunas......♥ God I love Saturniidae so much. God bless!