New Jersey Moths: The Sphinx Moths, Darwin, and Pollination
The beautifully patterned Laurel sphinx moth.
Photos courtesy of David Moskowitz
The Sphinx moths or Hawk moths are incredibly interesting, both ecologically and from a historical perspective that helped Charles Darwin formulate his ideas about evolution. In New Jersey we are lucky to have a diverse fauna of nearly 50 species. Visit Bill Oehlke’s excellent website, The Sphingidae of New Jersey for photos and information about all of our species. In New Jersey we have both day-flying and nocturnal hawk moths. Last year I was fortunate to photograph one of our diurnal species and it was published on the cover of American Entomologist! Gene Kritsky, the Editor of American Entomologist once said that getting one of his photos on the cover was for an entomologist just like the song, Cover of Rolling Stone by Dr. Hook:
“Wanna see my picture on the cover
Wanna buy five copies for my mother
Wanna see my smilin' face
On the cover the cover of the Rollin' Stone”
He was right (and I did get my mom a bunch of copies)!
The beautiful day-flying Hummingbird clearwing moth.
The Pink-spotted hawk moth.
The Small-eyed sphinx moth.
“Darwin measured several nectarines and found the average length to be about eleven-and-a-half inches long. Because this group of orchids is moth pollinated, Darwin wrote in his 1862 book on Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, “in Madagascar there must be moths with proboscises capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches!” He did not know which family this hypothetical moth might belong to, but he speculated that the Sphingidae was the likely candidate.”…Darwin believed the long nectary was an adaptation to lure moths to the flower.”
“Darwin noted that nectar could only be found in the lower inch and a half of the nectar…Small moths would not have proboscises long enough to reach the nectar and their actions would not cause the pollinaria to be removed. This set up the selection pressure for the evolution of the moth orchid complex. Orchids with nectarines which forced large moths to insert their proboscises as far as possible, would be pollinated more often and produce more seeds.”
The Catalpa sphinx moth.
“The quest for the giant moth was realized in 1903 when Rothschild and Jordan described a large Madagascan sphinx moth…The new moth was…appropriately named Xanthopan morgani praedicta. As expected, the moths are large with wingspans of about 150 mm and proboscises of about 300 mm…”
The Virginia Creeper sphinx moth.
Abbott's sphinx moth.
Dave Moskowitz is Senior Vice President with EcolSciences, Inc., President of the Non-Profit Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission and Co-founder of National Moth Week. Consider participating in National Moth Week this summer (July 23-29).