Some more Zelotypia pics…

Zelotypia stacyi, 2015 specimen

Its been a while since I posted anything, so here is a quick update with some fresh pics of some Zelotypia from the collection. I would like to say I caught these, but they are from another collector in Sydney. The bad setting of the female shown above is not mine, either…

One of the quirks with Hepialids is that they fade, regardless of whether or not you keep them in darkness. This is also true of Zelotypia. Most people who know Zelotypia are familiar with old, faded museum specimens. In fact, virtually all photos on the web or in books are of older specimens collected nearly 100 years ago. The fact is, fresh ones look totally different, especially the males. Compare my 100 year old male (specimen at top; thanks again, Allen!) with a 2015 collected specimen:

Comparison of 2015 and 1920 Zelotypia stacyi

The pale markings on the forewing are actually slightly iridescent, and the outback orange of old specimens is actually a red in fresh ones!

I will be in the ANIC for the upcoming moth workshop and hope to photograph a male they have that was collected in 2014. It is different again to my specimen. I am also hoping to go on a Hep photography binge while I am at it, so keep on eye on my Flickr page in coming weeks. There are already a good number of pics both from ANIC and my collection on Flickr (duplicated on John Grehan’s site as well) to keep any Hepialid aficionado happy.

Until then, Happy Hepping!

The first Hepialid night at home (6-7 April 2015) – but not a usual one…

In Canberra, the heavy rains of March and April bring out a large and spectacular Hepialid, Trictena atripalpis (Walker, 1856). It is quite common and the larvae are the famous bardi grubs used for fishing bait, especially in the Murray River basin. Another common name for this species, Waikerie, is the origin of the town of the same name in South Australia (I have to collect some Trictena from there one day!). Common though they may be, there is something special about Trictena, and I love having such large moths living in my yard (they can get to 180 mm). I call them big moths out of affection.

Here is a representative male, photographed here in Canberra on 28 April 2013 (although this male is maybe a tad more silver than usual):

Trictena atripalpis, Canberra, ACT, Australia

And a newly eclosed female from the same locality and date (perhaps a little on the darker side of possible variation):

Trictena atripalpis, Canberra, ACT, Australia

As currently defined, T. atripalpis has a huge distribution extending from southern Queensland through New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. However, there are a bunch of cryptic species under the umbrella of T. atripalpis. I have specimens collected at Ceduna, South Australia, and Rainbow, Victoria, by very dear friends and all round great guys Nick Temby and Fabian Douglas that can be sorted into at least four or five entities based on antennal colour and forewing ground plan (the moths, not Nick and Fabe!). My understanding is that the forthcoming monograph on Australian Hepialids by Thomas Simonsen will erect a number of new taxa from T. atripalpis alone.

Trictena atripalpis swift moths at my moth light

The usual suspects gathered around the light at 5 AM on 3 April 2014. This is a usual moth night for me.

I don’t have to go far to collect T. atripalpis – in fact, all I need do is turn on a moth light in my yard. However, any light will attract some Trictena if they are about, and they come knocking on the windows and doors for numerous people in rural and semi-rural parts of Australia. In fact, the moths are so sociable that Fabian, Nick and I talk of them knocking at the doors and windows to be let in out of the rain! To me, this is a wonder of nature and it is a privilege to experience it (although some people do get seriously freaked out by them).

The usual pattern for me is that the adults emerge on dusk, leaving pupal cases like these poking out of the ground:

Trictena atripalpis pupal exuviae, Canberra, ACT

Pupal exuviae like these are usually the only sign to the uninitiated that there has been a big moth night. But most people mistake the pupal cases for something else, such as fungi or even cast reptile skins.

Around 8-8:30 PM AEST, the first specimens will arrive with a loud thump at the window, followed by a frantic patter of wings flapping as they struggle to get to the light source that attracted them. They are rather dopey around lights and will settle quickly, becoming very docile once they cool down.

Trictena atripalpis swift moths at my moth light

Some females at the moth light, again at 5 AM on 3 April 2014.

As the night wears on, fewer specimens come in, dropping off around midnight. But the numbers increase in the hours before dawn, and this is usually when females arrive.

As with a number of other Hepialids, T. atripalpis fly with their longitudinal axis held at about a 45-degree angle to the ground and the tip of their abdomen raised. Their wings have a shallow arc and whirr madly. This means that a lot of specimens attracted to lights are rather battered, especially females which arrive in the early hours of the morning (one flying in as late as 6 AM in April last year!). The best female I have (pic above) was one I collected shortly after it had eclosed in my yard. The females scatter eggs as they fly. By dawn, their lives are over and birds will quickly polish up any moths left over. Aside from the pupal cases, a few spent wings are the only sign that these majestic moths have been and gone:

The aftermath of Trictena nights

The remains of Trictena cleaned up by birds in my garden after a moth night.

We still don’t know what the newly hatched larvae feed on in the wild, or how they transition to a life of girdling Eucaltypus roots deep underground. That this mystery repeats itself year after year in my yard and I still remain oblivious after trying to get larvae to feed (on carrots, mushrooms, paper towel[!], etc) in captivity, or find them in my garden, is a source of both deep frustration and wonder.

March was relatively dry here, but the long weekend (Easter) looked to be very promising for rainfall – at least initially. Then the forecast alternated day by day as to whether it would rain. Eventually, the weather forecasters let themselves down badly and we got less than 1 mm over Easter.

Then, finally, Dorothea Mackellar’s poem My Country once again rang true:

But then, the grey clouds gather, and we can bless again.
The drumming of an army! The steady, soaking rain!

And it was a big moth night once more.

But typically, it happens on the night of Easter Monday (6 April; why, why, why could it not have happened over the weekend proper?), so I will be guaranteed to arrive at work feeling very tired. That it then happened again the night after (Tuesday 7 April) means I am absolutely wrecked as I write this on the night of Wednesday 8 April…

Monday 6 April:

8 PM – it is raining and the moth lights are on in anticipation!

IMG_2473

I use compact fluorescent lamps at home to attract moths. They are sold at Bunnings (= Home Depot or Lowes for those in North America) under the Gecko brand name. 50W tubes are far and away the best, and you can run them under wet and cold conditions that would shatter mercury vapour (MV) bulbs. They do put out a LOT of UV, so safety glasses that block at least 380nm and below are needed. Polycarbonate lenses are a good choice.

9:30 PM – well this is odd – no moths yet!

10:15 PM – still no moths. Time to go check the nearby service stations to see whether I am being hexed here at home.

10:45 PM – nothing at the service stations, but joy of joys, look what was waiting for me at home!

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Two beautiful and fresh males! But normally there would have been at least six by now. Something isn’t right…

IMG_2477

I set them – they are magnificent specimens – and go to bed. Note the white under the abdomen of the lower specimen? This is some paper towel folded into layers and used to support the abdomen. This is a good idea for setting Hepialids, as they leach grease like crazy (Cossids are equally bad)! Because Trictena and Abantiades are such strong fliers, their wing muscles are very powerful and make setting the wings difficult, because the muscles keep pulling the wings out of square. I set my Hepialids using clear mylar setting tape as coverstrips to tension the wings, and 000 ento pins inserted through the mylar tape into the thicker veins on the forewing and hindwing, which are very robust on these genera and provide good anchorage points. Provided you remove the 000 pins before the setting tape is de-tensioned, they come out cleanly and the holes are hardly noticeable.

I will have to post a setting tutorial because setting Exoporia requires a different strategy to non-Exoporian Lepidoptera. The Jugum is a key reason for this and makes setting frustrating if you don’t understand how it works. In fact, the jugum can undermine your setting attempts – it is possibly why many people set Hepialids with a gap between the fore- and hindwings that looks awful IMHO. But there are some tricks I have learned from setting numerous specimens of Oxycanus and Trictena that make it easy – once you know the morphology works and how to exploit it.

Tuesday 7 April

1 AM – I automatically wake and drag myself downstairs to go check the light again – no new additions. I slip into that awkward sleep that comes from knowing there is an alarm due to go off all to soon and after an uncomfortable, fitfull and dreamless sleep…

5 AM – <phone alarm vibrates> Bleeaaaaargh!

I drag myself out of a nice warm bed into 6*C rain.

Yuck!

Waiting for me are four more males, of which three are keep-able, and one really battered female that shows the unusual semi-translucency that worn T. atripalpis specimens get. I keep her to show this in the collection (and to get some eggs to scatter under the Eucalypt in my yard) and to record females were actually flying. Bizarrely, she does not lay, which implies to me that she is unfertilised. How bizarre! Every other female I have ever handled has dropped hundreds of thousands of eggs that, despite best efforts to collect and re-sow them under host plants, wind up in crevices on setting boards. These then become wandering larvae that trail silk over everything they cross and necessitate a thorough cleaning out of the moth room. I will dissect this female when the dissecting microscope I have brought arrives. But I am wondering if this hatch was asynchronous – with adults emerging out of sync with each other.

Night of 7-8 April

The Bureau tells our local TV stations that the overnight rainfall was the heaviest recorded for April in 29 years. We got just over 39 mm here, which is wonderful for the garden. But no moths. I suspect that the wind chill factor (2.7*C at 5 PM when these moths usually emerge) might have something to do with it. In fact, the wind chill dropped to 1.7*C when the female moths should have been peaking. The Brindabella Ranges above Canberra also recorded 20 cm of snow. Normally, the low pressure systems and troughs that trigger Hepialid emergences raise the ambient and wind chill temperatures, and do not produce snow. So I suspect the no-show was due to the cold conditions. I did not find any pupal cases, either, which suggests something we do not yet understand tipped the Heps off that this night would not be good for them to emerge.

The only thing that came in was a male of the Anthelid Chelepteryx collesi, the white-stemmed gum moth. It was waiting on the light at 1 AM when the temperature was 6.5*C and wind chill was 2.5*C. Here is an example of this species I photographed here in 2013:

Chelepteryx collessi

Pretty, but not a Hep. It also has a thick woolly jumper that allows it to handle the cold. Interestingly, this species has sharp processes on the sides of the thorax that, if you try to crush the thorax like you would to immobilise a butterfly, will painfully dig into your thumb and forefinger. I wonder if this is an anti-bat device, as it would presumably be painful for the mucous membranes of the mouth.

Maybe the next rains will be better.

On the trail of Zelotypia stacyi (aka the Cigar moth!)

A few weeks ago, a Sydney colleague who wishes to remain anonymous managed to collect a specimen of Zelotypia stacyi – something he had been waiting the best part of half a century to do! Here is a pic of the specimen freshly collected:

Zelotypia stacyi, male

Note the recurved abdomen – this matches the aposematic displays observed by others. This display is probably intended to make use of the eyespots and abdomen to resemble a rather ticked off lizard snapping its mouth, but after having spent some time searching for Zelotypia in habitats in western Sydney, I believe it would blend in superbly at rest on a tree trunk. Other species with rather spectacular eyespots have also been noted to blend in supremely well at rest, including Morpho butterflies such as M. cisseis (read the passage on that species in Seitz).

I had been encouraging said colleague with hints and suggestions via mobile phone all evening, and was spreading specimens when an excited phone call came in. The conversation went something like this:

“Have you gone to bed or something?”
“No, why? Did you get one?”
“Bloody hell yes! Check your phone, I just sent you a picture!” (the phone had buzzed when the pic above came in, but I was concentrating on setting a 165 mm Morpho cisseis and had not heard it)

<pause as what he has just said to me sinks in>

“You LEGEND!”

His collection method – it flew across the road, got dazzled by his headlights, and crash landed. Presumably, his car would have parked itself as he bailed out the door to collect the specimen.

So, a week later, I was up in Sydney myself, driving about likely places from dusk till well past 11 PM hoping for a specimen to make a repeat performance. And while I saw an ochre-brown, ghostly apparition the size of a small bird fly well above the car in the gloom of my headlights, it did not land, so I am not sure whether it was a Zelotypia, a bat or an owl. The unusual flight pattern suggests to me that it was not a vertebrate, though. In fact, it flew a little like an Ornithoptera: wings high and with a flopping characteristic.

So I lucked out. The following two nights were better, though. I joined fellow Hepialid collector Allen Sundholm in the field in Sydney and managed to collect some Abantiades barcas (a new one for the collection) and one specimen each of A. labyrinthicus, A. hyalinatus and A. aphenges (also new for the collection). Specimens will be posted once they are off the boards.

But I did come back to Canberra with a Zelotypia – and a historic one at that, courtesy of Allen (thank you once again my friend!). Here’s a picture of it:

Zelotypia stacyi, male, ex collection Harald Schraeder

The collection data for this specimen is:

Australia: New South Wales: Tuncurry, 4 April 1920. Ex coll. (and leg.?) Harald Schrader. That means that, at the time of writing this edit (4 April 2015), this specimen was collected exactly 95 years ago! Incredible! I would be pretty sure that the last thing Harald Schrader would have ever expected is that someone would be thinking about him collecting this specimen exactly 100 years later.

So who was Harald Schrader? He was a dentist and private insect collector who amassed one of the finest collections of Australian and exotic Lepidoptera to date in Australia. He was a widower and neglected his health to the point where a doctor was called to make a house call by his concerned relatives. The story of how that doctor, John Byrne, came to purchase the collection can be read here. Sadly, after Doctor Byrne sold the collection to the Butterfly Farm at Wilberforce in far north-western Sydney, it was broken up and sold at auction. Allen then managed to purchase this male and the three females shown on the Schrader Collection blog during the auction; the fate of another seven or so specimens Schrader had, plus the other ghost moths in that collection remains unknown. If anyone knows their whereabouts, I would be interested in knowing, solely for the sake of history. Needless to say, this male is now one of the most treasured specimens in my collection.

As an interesting aside, I emailed the photo of the Schrader Zelotypia male to Andrew Byrne (who runs the blog on the Schrader collection I link to above) for his interest. He told me that he and his sister used to call Zelotypia “cigar moths” as children! I will now have a hard time not calling them that (hence the blog post title). Cigar moth is a lot nicer and historic than bent-winged swift moth.

Now I need to find a live specimen – but it will now have to wait till next year. Zelotypia are now pretty much done for 2015.

Hepping at Wee Jasper – Abantiades labyrinthicus and Elhamma australasiae

Australians have this innate habit for abbreviating things, and for some of us, it applies to the names of insects. Friends who collect jewel beetles, for example, abbreviate Temognatha and Castiarina to “Temog” and “Casst”, respectively. For Hepialids, a number of us simply call them “Heps”. To go out collecting Heps is therefore to go “Hepping”. And that is just what friend and fellow Hep collector Nick and I did last week at a town called Wee Jasper, located just over an hour out of Canberra.

https://flic.kr/p/riwxL2

This is one of the type series of the newest Lepidoptera family – the Aenigmatineidae. They are endemic to Kangaroo Island. Specimen in the Australian National Insect Collection, photographed during the 2013 ANIC moth workshop. The publication photo shows them to be very gold in colour, but they actually look dark purple with gold sparkles in life.

Nick and I got together because there was a new familiy of moths named recently from Australia – the so-called Aenigmatineidae ([A]enigma as in enigmatic, and Tineidae as a reference to the first family of small moths). What’s with the weird name you ask? It is by no means a precedent.

Acanthopterocetes unifascia

Acantho-tero-whatidae? This is Acanthopteroctetes unifascia, another micromoth with a bizarre name.

Primitive Lepidoptera tend to have unpronounceable names – like Acanthopteroctetes unifascia in the family Acanthopteroctetidae. There are also names like Lophocoronidae, Neopseustidae, Agathiphagidae, Mnesarchaeidae and Heterobathmiidae for other microlepidoptera families.

Micalong Creek, Wee Jasper

Micalong Creek, Wee Jasper

You can read about the new family in the CSIRO’s press release here and the formal description here. Anyway, to celebrate the naming of the Aenigmatineidae, the CSIRO’s Australian national insect collection invited a bunch of Lepidopterists over, which gave Nick and I an excuse to go Hepping. So after the formalities were over, we jumped in the car and drove straight to Micalong Creek, just outside Wee Jasper.

Battery for mothing

I have had some dodgy experiences with generators – I don’t have the finances to buy a Honda, which is about the only reliable generator for Hepping purposes. So, I use a military-grade 100 amp-hour battery from an uninterruptable power supply to run a 36W fluoro tube emitting a peak of 365 nanometers (these tubes are used to attract insects in bug zappers), run from 12V to 240V through an inverter ballast. Unconventional, sure, but it works and is completely reliable. I can get several nights light trapping off one charge, as the battery is deep cycle. The downside is the battery weighs 40 kilograms (!!!!), which means I run it off the back seat of my car using 5 meter long leads (good for light sheeting in rain!). I’m trialing a range of LEDs as well, and will post about it when I am happy with an LED setup. I have a 365 nm 10W LED chip that works, but diffusing its output effectively is an issue I am still working on.

Abantiades labyrinthicus, male

And work the battery setup did – we took five males and a female of Abantiades labyrinthicus, a relatively common species but the first time I had an opportunity to collect some. The above specimen is a male. Females tend to come in during sometime after midnight, as appears to also be the case with OxycanusAbantiades labyrinthicus is also a species that does not need rain to fly, unlike Oxycanus and Trictena.

Elhamma australasiae with eggs

We also found the relatively common and widespread Hepialid Elhamma australasiae. The biology of this species in officially unknown, but Nick showed me numerous pupal cases (which we also collected) under the wattle Acacia melanoxylon. What it feeds on is not yet known. Above is a female with eggs that was attracted to the aforementioned 365 nanometer LED chip light. I took a further three males at a friend’s on the weekend after collecting this female, one of which has an amazing cedar-red forewing! This species is extremely variable.

A first (and unsuccessful) reconnaissance for Zelotypia stacyi – the bent wing swift moth

Zelotypia stacyi, female

This specimen of Zelotypia stacyi was collected by a private collector in the western suburbs of Sydney a few years ago and is the only specimen of this species in my collection. I am yet to see or collect Zelotypia – but am determined to – and soon!

Last weekend, I found myself in Sydney and decided to have a serious look for the near-mythical bent winged swift moth, Zelotypia stacyi Scott. Although I have lived close to where Zelotypia occur for nearly a decade now, I have never seen one. In fact, the closest I came to seeing a live specimen was when a work colleague in Sydney brought me a specimen they hit with their car! They honestly thought the 280 mm moth was a bat – and that wingspan was when the specimen was set with wings 90* to the body! Sadly for me, she insisted on keeping the specimen, but she did give me a hint where to find it – the Macquarie Pass area of NSW.

Zelotypia stacyi, female, head detail

Detail of the head and legs of Zelotypia stacyi. Their legs, like those of Trichophassus giganteus, are incredible!

Macquarie Pass is mostly encompassed by the Macquarie Pass National Park, which extends from just above sea level to the top of the Illawarra Escarpment near the town of Robertson. As noted in Chadwick’s paper on Zelotypia, the larvae feed inside Eucalyptus tereticornis and E. grandis. Of these, the latter is found at lower altitudes along the escarpment, so after having spotted some from the car, I got out to have a look.

Putative Zelotypia stacyi bore

This is what I believe to be a vacated larval bore of Zelotypia, based on examination of a bore held by a private collector I know. It is rather comparable to those of the ghost swift genus Aenetus in that the bore is covered over with coarse silk webbing that incorporates wood shavings and frass (the webbing has been lost from this particular bore, which must be some years old by now). But Zelotypia bores are huge in comparison to Aenetus!

Habitat of Zelotypia stacyi

This bore was located a few meters up a sapling of E. saligna. Although not a specimen, it is a promising first start. I found a lot of what looked like bore holes on the same trees that I initially thought were active Zelotypia bores, but they turned out to be various scars not related to Zelotypia, or even large Cossids like Endoxyla spp..

Zelotypia wing detail

Here’s the thing about Zelotypia – they look very conspicuous when viewed as a specimen in a cabinet, but once you start looking at the trunks of Eucalyptus – it soon becomes very clear that they are supremely well camoflaged, because every second piece of bark looks like a Zelotypia after a while! Although Zelotypia are oft cited as a very rare species, they are relatively common and the reason for their “rarity” is perceived – they don’t come to light and live for a short time as adults. To see them, you have to be at the right place at the right time and then you have to be lucky enough to recognise that odd shaped bit of bark as a moth If you can’t manage to get everything lined up, you won’t ever see one. Remains of dead Zelotypia are also rarely found because they are heavily predated by birds. In fact, I have heard numerous stories from those who have collected or seen live Zelotypia that kookaburras and currawongs make short work of them as they emerge. They are not threatened because their host plants are common and widespread, and because the adults are so cryptic in their behaviour. In fact, the specimen shown above was collected in suburban Sydney!

To read more about Zelotypia, visit my the website of friend and colleague John Grehan. A variety of specimens photographed by Len Willan can also be seen here at Australian Moths Online.