Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Ghost Moths

Ghost Moths (family Hepialidae) receive their name from the habits of at least one European species in which the male hovers above the ground at twilight rising and falling to attract females. At times several males form a lek and exhibit this peculiar behaviour. The term has been applied to all species. “Swift Moths” is another term for the family which is probably more appropriate. I recall evenings spent with the late Don Mac Neill at his home in El Cerrito, Cal. at twilight trying to get a glimpse of “Ghost Moths” flying low over his fern collection and very easily evading his ever-ready net.

In Australia we have over 100 species of Ghost Moth ranging in size to some small species of Fraus and Oncopera. As an aside, the biology of many species was studied extensive and in great detail by Norman B. Tindale in a series of publications dating from 1932-64. One of the incredible observations he made was his estimation of the number of eggs produced by females another hepialid species, Trictena atripalpis (Walker). He estimated a female laid some 29,100 eggs and when he dissected her later, an additional 15,000 eggs were counted.

Tindale also studied orthopteroids (crickets and their relatives). His treatise on the biology of mole crickets is a classic. Norman was a dynamic person. I met him by chance at the California Academy of Sciences in the 60’s. He had moved from Australia and was living in Palo Alto. He visited the Academy of discuss moths with Don MacNeill from time to time. Later in Canberra at a meeting of the Australasian Sound Recordings Association (ASRA) I played a recording of my Oligodectoides tindalei and a friend from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) made a comment about “another” Norman Tindale who was a big a big-time archaeologist. Turns out it was the same person. He’s equally claimed by the archaeological community and with some justification. He was active in the early 1920’s excavating and challenging orthodoxy. His cinematic and audio recording of aboriginal activities in the 30’s is truly classic. Take some time to read these notes.

Back to the Ghost Moths. Aenetus mirabilis (Roths.) is one of the beaut moths that comes to light on rare occasions. Some 10 species in this genus occur between Cooktown and Paluma, Qld. This species spends the larval stages boring in Ash, Alphitonia. Males have odd scent glands that are associated with tufts of hairs (scales?) that produce a powerful floral scent. My colleagues can smell it, but, unfortunately, it is lost on me. A. tegulatus Pagenstecher is a more widespread species. It is known from Indonesia south to New Guinea. I found it at my light at Bawley Point, N. S. W. as well as at Kuranda. I know nothing of its habits.

Adult male A. mirabilis.

Same male spread. Note the "scent hairs" at the base of the wings.

Same male. "Scent hairs" magnified.

A related species A. tegulatus. To give you an idea of the size of these moths, this moth measures 125 mm across.


Camera Trap Codger said...

Interesting post, Dave. We are lucky to have met and learned a bit from our older colleagues and mentors. Some of them actually were "renaissance men", but I have seen this term used so many times by journalists to describe some Johnny-come-lately officials or appointees in Washington D.C. that I get suspicious whenever I hear the words.

Unknown said...

Love the Hepialidae! Hope you can come across more, it's a group thats hard to resist. I've enjoyed reading over your blog, and I do recognize your name from labels in the collections here. Nice meeting you, and I've added your link as well - it's spectacular to get updates from the Australian jungle.