One of our most distinctive nighttime flying jewels is the giant leopard moth. Its beauty rivals that of any of the well-known butterflies that flutter across our backyards from spring into fall. However, since it is a creature of the night, we rarely see it in Monroe County.
With a name like the giant leopard moth, one might think it is so named because it displays the ferocious nature of the leopard that roams the wilds of Asia and Africa. Nothing could be further from the truth. Taxonomists dubbed this large moth the giant leopard moth because its wings are covered with leopard like spots. These spots vary from black to blue. Some spots even have white centers. While I have no problem with this handsome moth being named for a leopard, it might have been more appropriate to call it the Dalmatian moth
The female leopard moth is smaller than its male counterpart. The male has a wingspan for some 3.6 inches, whereas the female’s wingspan is only 2.25 inches.
Although the giant leopard moth can conceivably be seen in just about any backyard through Monroe County, if you knew nothing about the moth and had the task of venturing out into the night to capture one, you would probably return to the house empty handed. To be successful all you have to know is the giant leopard moth is attracted to lights. Armed with that information, the best strategy would be for you to pull up a lawn chair near an outside light and wait for the elusive moth to come to you. If there is a giant leopard moth in the area, there is a chance it will come to your light.
When a leopard moth finally shows up chances are it will be a male. The reason for this is, for some reason, females do not visit light nearly as often as the males.
Some homeowners report seeing upwards of a dozen giant leopard moths gathering around a single light, although I must confess I have never seen more than one at a time.
At times giant leopard moths can be found in the daytime on the ground or attached to the walls near an outside light. If you try to touch such a moth, they will sometimes try to appear dead. This ruse is often accompanied with the moth curling up to expose its abdomen. If this doesn’t deter what the insect interprets as a predator, it will emit a yellow fluid.
The moth also has a couple of other ways to protect itself from being eaten. Obviously, it is always best not to be spotted by a predator. Biologists believe the odd white and black pattern displayed on the insect’s wing are a form of disruptive coloration. As odd as it may seen to us, supposedly it makes the giant leopard moth harder for a bird or other predator to spot.
The moth’s nocturnal habits also greatly reduce the chance it will be spotted by a bird simply because most of them are active during the daytime. Unfortunately for the giant leopard moths, whip-poor-wills, chuck-wills-widows, and bats are on the prowl once the sun goes down and do not turn down the opportunity to dine on a juicy giant moth.
The giant leopard moth has a couple of ways to avoid being eaten by bats. Remarkably, they have ears that are located behind the spot where its hind wings join its body. Lepidopterists believe these organs enable it to detect the echolocation sonar the bats use to detect prey. It also has the ability to produce clicking sounds. It is theorized that the moth uses these sounds to jam the bat’s echolocation system.
If you have never seen one of these striking, remarkable insects, there is no better time to go on a quest to see the giant leopard moth than right now. If you don’t happen to see one right away, don’t give up as they can be seen in Monroe County throughout the summer.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.