3 July 2023
28 June 2023 – Buff-tipped Marble
After an unseasonably chilly start to the summer, moths are finally starting to return to the trap at Shandy Hall in larger numbers. The Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) is a more recent visitor, with the flight season just beginning: We only caught one (the first of the summer) in the previous trap, but this morning there were three! In addition to the moth’s striking appearance, the Elephant Hawkmoth’s naming is as unexpected as it is interesting.
The common name comes from the likeness of the larva to an elephant’s trunk. The caterpillar is grey, partitioned along the body, with two prominent eye markings, which do look quite a bit like nostrils. The snout-like appearance of the larva is often used to explain the scientific name elpenor as well. Elpenor was one of Odysseus’s men who was transformed into a pig on Circe’s island. Could it be that the only reason elpenor is used is because of the caterpillar’s resemblance of a pig’s snout? After all, the scientific name for this moth’s cousin, the Small Elephant Hawk-moth (Deiliphila porcellus) is the same, except instead of elpenor, it is called porcellus, meaning “piglet.”
The moth’s larval foodplant, Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), gives away the name’s explicit reference to the entire episode of Circe’s island from The Odyssey. ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ seems obvious enough, and the reference in the scientific name is even more evident! The plant’s genus Circaea refers directly to Circe, and the specific designation is from Lutetia, the latin name of Paris which was colloquially referred to as “Witch City.”
As a Classics major, my favorite part about writing these blogs is catching a whiff of some reference to ancient Greek and Roman mythology and literature in the naming conventions. The moths, already so colorful and full of personality, are made almost anthropomorphic with their comparison to mythological characters. The Elephant Hawkmoth, (Elpenor) comes into frame as a pig-like creature, feeding greedily from the Enchantress (originally, it was wine that turned the men into swine). And then, as in the epic, Elpenor undergoes a wonderful transformation: in the larvae’s case, into a beautiful adult moth, and for the mythic Elpenor, back into a human. It’s wonderful!
The Drinker (Euthrix potatoria) was another welcome catch this morning. The Drinker’s entry in the Field Guide draws my attention each time I see it, so I recognized this moth immediately by his long, ear-like antennae, fuzzy round wings, and petite “snout,” all which give him the appearance of a tiny mammal. Chris, at Shandy Hall. remarked that she likes Drinkers because they look like hedgehogs. The above photo of a Drinker, taken at Shandy Hall on 1 August 2019, is an exceptional example of the moth’s uniquely mammalian appearance. In the photo, the Drinker steps timidly forward, “nose” forward, sniffing the air shyly, eye shining like that of a child’s teddy bear. Their name derives from the caterpillars’ habit of drinking dewdrops, which in my opinion only furthers the characterization of this moth’s docile, sweet, supernaturally charming personality. They fly during July and August, feeding mostly on coarse grasses and reeds. I’m happy to report that Drinkers are “widespread and abundant” in North Yorkshire. Hopefully we’ll see more visits from this adorable little sprite in the future!
Another moth of note was (Hedya ochroleucana), a species which we might have encountered before, though without realizing its unique identity. It falls into a group of micros that are sometimes known as “Bird-dropping moths.” Typically very small and bearing black and white patterning they can appear like guano pellets. Up close though these moths can be quite striking. We photographed this one because it was noticed how beautiful its markings are: cream, deep royal purple, lavender, ochre, browns and golds all used to create a distinct, mottled wing pattern. The identification of this moth was not easy, because its cousins, other Heyda moths, can look almost identical. It was the gold border on the edge of the moth’s wing that made me confident in identifying him as Hedya ochroleucana, and Charlie Fletcher kindly confirmed.
It is a scarce and local resident in Yorkshire and it is also known as the Buff-tipped Marble.
Having searched the Shandy Hall blog for Hedya ochroleucana, and finding no mention, this moth is now a new species for Shandy Hall! This brings the count up to 452.
Post : Autumn Cortright UPenn Intern