Spot the beast 68

Having given you difficult assignments before, today I give you a relatively easy one…

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I hope you found it easily as I expected. What I am not sure of is whether you are familiar with this rather large moth known as the Black Witch moth (Ascalapha odorata), an interesting beast in the way that it elicits fear in some parts and good luck in others!

Named by Linnaeus in 1758, the Black Witch is found from the southern United States to Argentina. The adults feed on overripe fruits while the earlier instars feed on legumes’ leaves such as Acacia species. The female of this moth is one of the largest in the American continent reaching up to 17cm (the one illustrated below was about 16 cm). The males are paler and smaller.

The Black Witch was already known by the peoples of America well before Linnaeus. They associated this moth with death and bad luck with names that meant butterfly of the land of the dead, death’s butterfly, and terror’s butterfly. It is believed to bring death in North American, Mexican and some Caribbean cultures and if one of these flies into a house, it is considered bad luck and most likely killed.

In some parts of Mexico, people joke that if one flies over someone’s head, the person will lose his hair. I was in Mexico and have lost my hair but I did not see the moth…

Closer to our present home, in Paraguay, the moth is wrongly associated with Dermatobia hominis as there is a mistaken belief about the moth urinating over their human “victims” and thereby inoculating their eggs, which then develop into maggots under the skin of the victim. In parts of Argentina it is known as the “pirpinto de la yeta” that could be translated as “bad luck’s butterfly”.

These beliefs have influenced the genus name Ascalapha. It comes from Ascalaphus, the custodian of the orchard of Hades who was the god of the dead and king of the underworld in Greek mythology. Ascalaphus was turned into an owl by either Demeter or Persephone (Hades’ consort) because of his misdeeds [1].

In the Bahamas they are know at the “money moths” as it is believed that if they land on you, you will get money, the same as in Texas if one lands outside your house. Just yesterday Carolina, a good friend, told me that she recalls her grandmother telling her that these moths brought good luck to the family that finds them.

They are not common at our farm in the Yungas of Salta but it makes some appearances attracted to the lights, resembling the bats that often fly around at night with which they are also mistaken. They seem to lose their bearings, and some have remained in our house for several days -despite our attempts at returning them to the outside- until they move off or just die.

Although the dorsal side of their wings look dark brown and almost black, its colours change depending on the angle of the light. On close inspection they can reveal areas of iridescence, mainly purple and pink, crossed by a whitish bar in the females. The small, comma-shaped green/pale blue surrounded by an orange line on each forewing are diagnostic of the species.

While we had not seen it, the larva is large (up to 7 cm) green and dark brown/black. Black Witch moth pupae were placed in the mouths of victims of the novel “The Silence of the Lambs” although in the movie they were replaced by death’s-head hawkmoth pupa.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascalaphus_(son_of_Acheron)

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