A Promethea Moth and the Awe-inspiring Power of Nature

A few days ago, the Nature Conservancy sent an email asking,

”Have you had a chance meeting with an animal much bigger than you on the hiking trail, or been witness to the awe-inspiring power of nature?”

If I think about it, I have been lucky enough to witness the awe-inspiring power of nature many times, in so many ways. But when I read this question, the encounter that came to mind first was with an animal much smaller than I am. It was a Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea), one of the beautiful large silk moths.

The story starts in the fall a few years ago when I was looking for Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly chrysalises. Spicebush Swallowtails survive the cold winters in northern climates in the pupa stage, in a chrysalis. I’ve often seen this beautiful butterfly as an adult,

Spicebush Swallowtail nectoring on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Spicebush Swallowtail nectoring on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

and as a caterpillar,

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpiller

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpiller

but I had never found a chrysalis.

Spicebush Swallowtails have evolved to depend on members of the laurel family as caterpillar food (host) plants. Where I live, this means Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) are the plants on which Spicebush Swallowtails rely for their species’ survival. So I went to a place that I know has a lot of Spicebush and Sassafras, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, to search for chrysalises. While I was unsuccessful in my hunt for a butterfly chrysalis, I did find this curious construction, which turned out to be a Promethea Moth cocoon.

Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea) Cocoon

Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea) Cocoon

Promethea Moth caterpillars have the ability to spin an amazingly strong silk that they use to reinforce the attachment of a leaf stem to its branch and surround themselves with a protective silken cocoon, using the leaf as the outer covering. The result is a perfectly disguised shelter that looks like a dead leaf hanging from a branch. Here they stay all winter long, emerging in late May, unless they become a meal for a clever bird that isn’t fooled by the cocoon’s subterfuge.

I kept an eye on the cocoon throughout the winter and early spring, checking on it whenever I visited the preserve. I am a naturalist there, and often lead tour groups. I was leading a 2 p.m. walk one day in the third week of May, telling the group about Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies, Promethea Moths, the cocoon we were about to see, and the fact that the moth would be emerging soon. When we reached the Spicebush, a gorgeous adult Promethea Moth was clinging to the cocoon.

Newly Emerged Promethea Moth

Newly Emerged Promethea Moth

While it posed waiting for its wings to harden, the members of my tour group were able to take photos. Eventually, we tore ourselves away and went on with the walk.  We were surrounded by  beautiful spring blossoms, but the Promethea Moth remained the highlight for us all.

When the walk ended, I left my group at the visitors center, went to my car to get my camera, and returned to the moth. Still there! I was able to take a few photos, then witnessed the moth move its wings, flutter them, release its grip on the cocoon and take off into the air above to seek a mate.

Prometha Moth, ready for take-off!

Prometha Moth, ready for take-off!

What a ‘one with the universe day’ kind of day!