In Feb, I will investigate the white witch in French Guiana. In anticipation of this trip, I've started a white witch blog aimed at staff and students at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School (where I teach). The White Witch blog at ESM will focus on whatever students might find cool, or whatever their teachers might find educationally useful about my trip into the Amazon.
I discovered the image below, displayed on the www site for Atelier Entomologica. I have emailed the artist, who appears to also be a research entomologist - what is the origin of the idea?
There is a nice article from the Huffington Post: This 17th Century Scientific Illustrator Loved Butterflies Before It Was Cool, by Priscilla Frank. Merian is of interest to us as the painter of the most famous image of the white witch. The fact that the immature stages shown are not plausible (explanation on images page) is her error (or artistic license?). But the article emphasizes the bigger picture (so to speak), the very fact of metamorphosis, not well understood at the time.
I happened across an image posted by Robert Siegel (Stanford University) indicating Florida as the observation location (Feb 2003). Robert corrected this: actually collected in Trinidad (recorded as FL as he traveled through there). Not a surprising locale; I also find a post for a white witch collected in Trinidad July 2009. Trinidad is just 11 km from Venezuela.
Daniel Jantzen probably has more field experience with moths of the New World tropics than anyone. His influence in Costa Rica has probably generated many of the white witch records for that country. What he says about the white witch question:
Tropical Lepidoptera often exhibit dramatic changes in abundance - a population boom is called an irruption. Consider a 2014 study, OBSERVATIONS ON AN IRRUPTION EVENT OF THE MOTH ACHAEA CATOCALOIDES AT KAKAMEGA FOREST, KENYA. In 2012, A. catocaloides (Noctuidae: Erebidae) abundance reached an estimated 6.8 moths/m2 in a 12,000 ha. area. Predation on moths was observed for 14 bird species, monkeys, and squirrels. If the moth species was rarely observed in normal years (the authors do not state a typical density), it would be incredibly conspicuous in an outbreak year.
There is some evidence for irruption events of white witches. If one were present for such a phenomenon, and if it occurred where moths were emerging, the chances for locating larval stages would increase in proportion to the size of the population boom.
I contacted Jacqueline Miller, an author of An annotated list of the Lepidoptera of Honduras, which referenced a white witch collected in May of 2010, near Parque National Pico Bonito on the Atlantic coast of Honduras. She mentioned other observations in the same area in Aug and July. She also noted that "one of our former research Associates, Dale Jenkins, who was working at USAID in Mexico City, collected more than 50 specimens of this species in Mexico." Tantalizing.
A 3 Sep article states that the record white witch is in the collection of John Powers, an Ontario collector:
Powers holds the world record for the largest moth for his thysania agrippina, otherwise known as the ghost moth or the birdwing moth. The insect was found in 1934 in Rio De Jenario and spent many years with another collector before Powers took possession. The record has held up since 1984.
Five hours up the Madre de Dios River from Puerto Maldonado, Bio station CICRA. I gave an informal presentation, and got: Lead #1 - Biologist who saw an enormous moth, likely agrippina, he will send me photo.
Lead #2 - Biologist saw in the last 2 weeks a strikingly large moth, oriented vertically on tree trunk. I'm not aware of other moths with this habit
Expectation: the most uesful, and current information will come from people intimate with the local forest, who will not have recorded their observations. Leads above were from vertebrate - monkey - biologists. You have to be their to ask.
Expectation: the larva of T. agrippina will not occur at sites like CICRA, because although they are remote, they are nonethless well scrutinized. If this holds, we should focus on habitats that most researchers ignor.
19 June 2015 - Tom Friedel created a photo record of a white witch posted to http://www.BirdPhotos.com, which he confirms as observed in Saboneta, Antioquia, Colombia, 12 May 2015. I don't have a precise location, but Sabaneta is high (1600 m), cool, and receives ca. 1800 mm rain. He sent us a second photo (with coke can) to provide scale for the 28 cm specimen. In our communication, Tom referred us to Robert Oelman, a photographer (see his impressive images here) that sent us white witch photos from Colombia (shot here with girl). Location Farallones Mountains, elevation 1700 m; date about 31 Dec 2012 National Park, at low elevation, >3000 mm rain. Robert also reports: Professor Ranulfo Gonzalez, entomologist at the Univ. del Valle, Cali told me that this moth is very rarely seen here and appears to be on the path of extinction. In my 9 years of searching for insects, this is the only T. agrippina that I have seen, which includes extensive travel in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru...This moth did something interesting. I placed it on the tree which you see in the photo but parallel to the ground, that is, the wings were extended in a horizontal line. Immediately, it corrected its position to a vertical line, the wings then following the line of the tree (which you see in the photo). There was a noticeable visual difference between the two positions. In the horizontal position, the moth was visually easy to detect whereas in the vertical position, it impressively blended in to the tree...The length from wingtip to wingtip was 30 cms..... - DLC
"Expedition" in quotes because my principal reason for the trip is to visit my son when I visit Peru in July. I have only the faintest hope of seeing a white witch - I know of only 5 records in Peru (though many more are collected there and sold on EBay). But I will certainly make connections, in particular at the Los Amigos field station of the Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica. In advance of this trip, I wrote a short article:
The Search for the White Witch Moth
Peru this Week, 12 Jun 2015
14 May 2015 - Rachel Hawkins, Curatorial Assistant at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, was kind enough to cull the label data from Thysania in the Harvard collection. Ten of 21 agrippina specimens have origin data; half of these are from Brazil. There are 32 zenobia specimens, one of which was recorded for Sep in Washington DC (Of 118 zenobia I have data for, 10 are from the US, states of NM, WI, WI, and DC).
8 May 2015 - I am working with sixth grade students at my school, teaching them about caterpillar anatomy. As they learn the parts - setae, spiracle, sub-spiracular spine - we'll talk about what the caterpillar of a white witch might look like. And then they can sketch out some plausible predictions. -DLC
Alberto Zilli is curator of Lepidoptera at perhaps the world's largest repository of biota. He oversees what is almost certainly the largest collection Thysania agrippina (and T. pomponia!) specimens. My friends Diane and Joe Foley were going on a trip to London in early March. They agreed to meet with Alberto, ask some questions, and record images of the collection. Alberto is a classic entomologist, inspired about lepidoptera from an early age. On a trip to Brazil at age 13, he encountered a white witch, and has been particularly attuned to the story of Thysania since. There are some tantalizing hints at geographic trends in coloration and form. This is a re-edit of a video I posted earlier.
8 April 2015 - From a blog on the www site of Osa Conservation, a group concerned with preservation of habitat in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica: moth seen at light sheet in Feb 2015. The team did not immediately ID the absurdly large moth - but googling "very large white moth with black markings" answered their question. That David Larson (Prof Emeritus, Univ of Alberta, Augustana) reports that this is the first white witch seen during sampling is interesting. Particularly as the documentation is solid: 4 years of light sheet sampling, 3 habitats (primary and secondary forests, riverine), one white witch. Are white witches rare at the site? Or are they rare for the sampling period, Feb of each year? Photos of Anne McIntosh, and white witch on sheet (photos D Larson and A McIntosh)--DLC
4 April 2015 - The photo here is one of 9 specimens from the Yale Peabody Museum collection (see photo page). It experienced some hard times, with at least 3 areas of wing damage. A close look at the high resolution image shows lost scales and more general wear of the wing margins. This moth had been flying for a long time. More specimens like this would help us to make educated guesses about moth longevity (if, e.g., there were a progression of wear at a site over time) or dispersal (if, e.g., moths at certain locations were typically old, at the end of a migratory flight). --DLC
21 Mar 2015 - Curators of large entomological collections might oversee a million or more specimens, which need to be protected, sorted, and organized. And, it will be the prerogative of the curator to study some subset of their material, to satisfy their curiosity as scientists, and their need to generate papers, the currency of scientific status. So if a entomologist with no international stature asks the curator about their Thysania specimens, how will he/she respond? If you are incredibly lucky, the curator is intrigued, or polite enough to go into their collection and tell you what they have. My best example is Alberto Zilli of the British Museum, with whom I've had a lively correspondence about what the many Thysania samples there tell us. But the more common response is either silence, or "yes we have specimens but I don't have any info on them;" or "there is no curator for lepidoptera at this time." The problem is not that these scientists lack professional courtesy. Rather, it is that support for taxonomy is an unsexy budget item that allocates too few resources to too few curators. --DLC