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We can thank Linnaeus for the name of the luna moth, Actias luna, an apt epithet for this, perhaps the most beautiful of our nocturnal insects. It seems likely that Linnaeus recalled the Roman moon goddess Luna in 1758 because of the mothâs distinctive hindwing spots â translucent discs with a dark crescent edge, like the moon when itâs nearly full. Perhaps he also realized that the entire moth is a living avatar of the moon â at rest by day, on the move by night, exquisitely pale, subtle yet spectacular.
Luna moths are among the largest moth species in North America, with a wingspan of 3 to 4 inches. They are common in deciduous forests from Saskatchewan to Texas, and from Nova Scotia to Florida. Scientists believe that populations of luna moths throughout their range have adapted to prefer particular local hardwood trees as host plants, including birch, hickory, beech, willow, and cherry.
In the northern parts of their range, luna moths typically breed once per year in June. In the south, luna moths breed up to three times a year. For the yearâs last generation, the shorter duration of sunlight late in the season causes the pupa to enter diapause, a state of suspended development. Late-forming pupae fall to the ground in autumn with the leaves that encase them, and then spend the winter waiting in the leaf litter on the ground until the longer days of spring signal that itâs time to emerge.
Luna moths, especially large larvae and adults, are high-value targets for insectivores. Therefore, luna moths have evolved remarkable adaptations to foil predators. The caterpillars are light green, matching the color of the leaves they feed on. But when they sense a predator about to strike, the caterpillars abandon attempts at concealment. Instead, they rear up their heads, possibly to confuse the predator, sometimes making a clicking sound with their mandibles, followed by regurgitation of foul-tasting liquid.
Luna moths likewise rely on visual camouflage as adults. Their green wings blend right in among any cluster of broad leaves. Furthermore, the forewings have reddish-brown leading edges that branch to teardrop-shaped spots, looking just like twigs with little emergent buds. Therefore, people rarely find luna moths in their natural habitats, instead encountering them most often near buildings illuminated by artificial lights at night.
This is a photograph of a Luna Moth that was resting on the forest floor. It was taken in northern Florida, where Luna moths are abundant and their cocoons can be found among the leaves of the trees. The photograph is printed on photographic quality paper with a glossy finish. It is shipped in a cardboard folder in a package to protect it.