17 Feb 2015 - White witches (dead and mounted) are available on the internet. These are specimens as artifacts, shorn of all context (see comment here). How big is the market? I can't say, but I google 13 listings this year. Unknown if one listing on EBay or Amazon or Bugmania means represents an inventory of many. Commonest source indicated is Peru. I wonder who collects these moths, and who brokers them? -DLC
23 Feb 2015 - The interview in this post is a description of what I do as a Hartford CT educator, and how that connects to the white witch through Dave Wagner and James Prosek.
23 Feb 2015 - A friend with access to obscure online journals found me the text of A new species of Thysania allied to T. agrippina, K. Jordan, in the 1924 Proceedings of the Entomological Society of London. "Dr. K. Jordan exhibited some specimens of the large American noctuid T. agrippina ... and said 'the specimens belong to two distinct species.'" He then describes the distinguishing features of body and wing coloration, as well as of the male genitalia. He suggests that T. pomponia may be limited to SE Brazil, which would help explain its scarcity in the collection record (the only specimens of which I am aware are in the British Museum).
Jordan also states that the "true larva [of T. agrippina], discovered by Rev A. Miles Moss at Para, is marked with numerous short black transverse dashes and black dots on a greenish-yellow ground." -DLC
9 Feb 2015 - In a "stories page" on the Butterfly Website, a writer describes seeing, as a 10 year-old "a huge moth flapping it wings against the window, trying to get into the building. Having developed a great interest in moths, I had learned much, and instantly knew this moth was a foreign, exotic visitor known as Thysania agrippina." He recounts the pursuit of the moth, from a diner to the street and back again. He concludes: "... I saw something useful and unusual about capturing the world's largest moth in Colorado Springs, several thousand miles away from its normal home in Brazil." So far as I know, this would be the northernmost record for this 11 inch T. agrippina, in the collection of John Hetzler.
Interestingly, the same page has an entry from Mario C. Callegari of Iquitos Peru, about eating insects to survive. The white witch is not mentioned. This HAS to be the same Mario Callegari credited with the largest white witch recorded (though the source for this is a Russian natural history blog that I can't evaluate). -DLC
5 Feb 2015 - I was trollingthrough ancient emails and found correspondence with Jean Michel Maes of the Museo Entomologico de Leon, Nicaragua. He had sent me photos of a specimen collected in 2012 - the only Nicaraguan record of which I am aware. - DLC
... that is, on a blog for the Ohio History Connection. David Dyer, Curator of Natural History sent me the label data for this specimen:
Homoptera strix Fabr. – Brazil – Jas. Monroe. On the tray itself is a new label “Thysania agrippina”. Unfortunately, the collector didn’t include the date it was collected but the specimen label is quite old, handwrittenin ink, and we assume it to be from late 19th Century.
I can't quite decipher this. "Fabr." is no doubt Johan Fabricius, a Danish taxonomist whose name is associated with some 10,000 species he described. "Strix" is an owl genus--is it a taxonomist's shorthand for "owl" moth? --DLC
2 Feb 2015 - Followed up on a photo posted from Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama. I am told that "in any given year we only see a handful of white witches ..." If a handful were 5, that would double the data we have for Panama. I have a Mexican friend from Michigan State that recalls being told that native americans in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas sold WW on the streets. The indigenas of San Cristobal are descendants of the Maya. What was the state of WW knowledge before the conquest?
31 Jan 2015 - Heard from Philippe Thomas, who maintains beautiful photographic records of lepidoptera of French Guiana, and is creating life histories for Saturniidae and Sphingidae species. He tells me that white witch name (at least in French Guiana) in French as le meunier, the miller. Our endeavor with the white witch is parallel to that of Philippe and many others concerned with their own taxonomic niche, one species at time, for 250,000 moths (David Wagner 2002) . - DLC
1 Feb 2015 - Learned of 6 specimens held by the Insect Collection of the Natural History Museum of Mexico City. Five from Veracruz, one from Chiapas (and one locality unk.) This doubles our Mexican data. Thanks to Biologa Maria Eugenia Diaz B., Curator for data and photos. - DLC
The author of this poem commented "This giant of a moth is a living surrealistic painting of the latest type displayed at the guggenheim. It could put Picasso to shame."
Light grey moth, jungle bred,
Giant of thy kind.
How did a Master's hand
Paint thee in modernistic forms
Aeons before their time?
Millions of tawny scales
Arranged in zig-sag abandon
Mold abstract designs upon thy parchment wings.
Which only art inspired by man
May urge upon a stiffened cloth.
1965. D. Gohla. Journal of the New York Entomological Society.
The World Wide Butterfly Breeding Forum is a lively discussion group that has offered some useful clues. Nigel Venters says about a trip to the Misiones region of Argentina (NE corner of country): this species seemed absent, (of course our own observations only!). We ran Mercury Vapor lights every night and we did not see a single specimen of Thysania Agrippina. Anyway, even negative results may be useful. Chatting to folk living there, it seems like Nov/Dec and March/April, it seems most common time to find the adults there.
Putting the two observations together, it could make sense that no moths were seen in this week. Would be interesting to see if lights run again in March turned up adults.Two distinct flight seasons would be interesting - possibility of 2 broods/year? One snapshot of seasonal climate patterns in Misiones, (see lots of data here):
The graph here shows some seasonal variation in Misiones rainforest, but no distinct dry season; annual precipitation ~200 cm.
29 Jan 2015 - In pursuit of Thysania pomponia, I contacted a curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Natural History, Alberto Zilli. He has been "planning to revive the status of the forgotton whitewitch" which he began investigating while at the Museum of Zoology of Rome. There may be actual specimens at the British Museum, where he now works. Alberto also reports the "collection here is full of specimens of agrippina, with several drawers completely stuck with samples." He suggests that a biometric study might reveal geographical, ecological, or seasonal patterns in morphology. Yes. I am fighting the impulse to fly to London. -DLC
27 Jan 2015 - Most sources of information about the genus identify 3 species of Thysania: agrippina, zenobia, and pomponia. For the first 2 of these there is a fairly extensive record of images and specimens. Thysania pomponia however is a ghost species. Every internet reference simply records the name: T. pomponia (e.g., Encyclopedia of Life). The index card shown here indicates that the authoritative British Museum of Natural History regards T. pomponia, described by Jordan in 1924, as a currently valid species. I sought the referenced publication and find text for the volumes of Trans. Ent. Soc. London from 1836-1922. The publication name did indeed change from "Trans." to "Proc." For the 1924 volume, maybe I'll have to visit London. Another tack: who was Jordan, who described T. pomponia? Evidently the German entomologist Karl Jordan, who described 2575 species, many Lepidoptera. Whether his determination would bear modern scrutiny is hard to know, unless a pinned moth is somewhere among the 80,000,000 specimens held in the British Natural History Museum (I checked; <5% of the records are online). In my fruitless pursuit of T. pomponia I ran across the text (and beautiful illustrations) of The Macrolepidoptera of the American Faunistic Region (1907), which I can't resist quoting: The giant continent of America, which extends from the eternal snows of the artic polar region further south than any other continent, is better adapted than any other to the production of an inexhaustible wealth of the most varied animal forms ... On Thysania: ... however the western tropical species develop gigantic forms, such as Erebus and before all Thysania agrippina, which has the largest expanse of wings of all the known lepidoptera. -DLC
27 Jan 2015 - We currently have <100 WW records in a database. I am confident that 100's more exist, as observations or specimens collected and held informally. Because: an entomophile, amateur or professional, is highly likely to notice and collect or photograph the biggest insect he/she has ever seen. E.g., the fine image currently on our homepage was "discovered" as a posting in a mailing list forum from 1999, in a quiet corner of the internet. Pierre Zagatti made the photo of a specimen he holds, and graciously agreed to send me the label data, which I would never have found in a formal holding. --DLC
Update: Pierre emails: The specimen was caught by my friend Bernard Lalanne-Cassou, at Petit-Saut dam, French Guyana, in February 1st, 1990 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petit-Saut_Dam). Bernard is a known specialist of neotropical noctuids, and performed surveys before the flooding of the reservoir. The moth was caught at light trap.
25 Jan 2015 - A bar code is the DNA base pair sequence, for a standard mitochondrial gene (CO1), that is unique to a species. A bar code obtained from a white witch moth would make it possible to quickly determine whether a larva or pupa was in fact T. agrippina.
As it happens, a bar code for a single specimen of T. agripinna exists.
From specimen collected in French Guiana - http://www.boldsystems.org/index.php/Public_RecordView?processid=LNOUF707-11
Thysania zenobia bar codes have been obtained for many specimens, e.g.: http://www.boldsystems.org/index.php/Public_RecordView?processid=MHMXG254-07
I received a set of 6 T. agrippina and 9 T. zenobia records from Gary Parsons at Michigan State University. Several from Fred Stehr and Dean Haynes, professors of mine when I was at MSU. This is an example of how you get access to records in a huge university collection: you know the curator, and he is kind enough to pull the drawers and transcribe the data by hand.
Discovered a rich set of records in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility records, some 48 white witch and 90 Thysania zenobia records. Most for physical specimens, but the database includes "research grade observations" sumbmitted to inaturalist.org, e.g.,
17 Jan 2015 - I am excited by the story we're creating about the hunt for the white witch. It has a lot of interesting elements, beyond the "biggest in the world" claim: the lore of the "witch"; the continental scope of its range; the association with the work of early naturalists. And of course, the frustrating invisibility of its life history. But it's not like biological mystery isn't everywhere you look. I spent a year of my life trying to understand the protozoan parasites of scarab larvae. Another year on the life history of a parasitic wasp. Each of these projects concerned common, fascinating, yet basically unknown organisms. But the white witch is different because it is such an accessible symbol of our ignorance. How could something so conspicuous be so obscure?