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Cecropia, Luna, Buckeye

Eco Mural Project 17: Cecropia, Luna, Buckeye: 22nd & Poplar, Fairmount, Philadelphia, PA.

Cecropia, Luna, Buckeye

Amidst the rich patchwork of Pennsylvania’s flora and fauna, few inspire more wonder or enchantment than our native butterflies and moths. With their vibrant colors and patterning, delicate forms, and graceful flight, these winged mosaics have captivated our collective imagination for centuries. Moths and butterflies are both members of the order Lepidoptera, a name derived from the Greek terms “lepis,” meaning scale, and “pteron,” meaning wing. In fact, all moths and butterflies are entirely covered in tiny scales! Another defining feature of Lepidopteran species is complete metamorphosis, meaning they undergo distinct life stages, each completely different from one another. Butterflies and moths have a symbiotic relationship with the native flora, meaning a close, long-term interaction, in which each organism is mutually benefited. Virtually every indigenous plant in Pennsylvania has a caterpillar that will feed on it. In turn, moths and butterflies spread pollen from plant to plant, enabling fertilization and seed production. 

Pennsylvania has over 150 species of butterflies and 1500 species of moths, each of which plays a key role in maintaining the fragile balance of our ecosystem. Most butterflies and many moths in Pennsylvania are important pollinators for native flora, ensuring the health and biodiversity of our local habitats. They are a vital part of the food chain as prey for birds, other insects, and mammals. Butterflies and moths are so integral to the biosphere that scientists often use them as “indicator species” to measure the overall health of an ecosystem. 

All species of moths and butterflies are under threat from ecological degradation, habitat destruction, use of pesticides, and light pollution. Moths and butterflies can only eat certain plants and can only survive in certain areas. This places them at high risk as their native refuges are mown down to create space for human infrastructure. The use of pesticides and the creation of pollution kills millions of butterflies and moths every year. As the prey source for many animals, the effect of pesticide use and pollution on these creatures can create a chain reaction of endangerment. Predators that rely on moths and butterflies as their main food source decline as their prey disappear. With an increase in development on previously protected lands, it is paramount that people unite in conservation efforts, and push back against the corporate greed motivating this destruction. 

In recognition of the essential role butterflies and moths play in maintaining Pennsylvania’s wildlife, Hagopian Arts has created a triptych of three native species: the cecropia moth, the luna moth, and the buckeye butterfly. Each mural portrays its subject in vibrant detail, surrounded by the indigenous plant species they live in tandem with. Foliage-inspired patterning grows throughout the imagery, flowing between and across the flora and the markings on the wings of the moth or butterfly depicted. In this way, Eco Mural 17 illustrates the dependent link between moths and butterflies and the larger environment. Their deeply interconnected relationship with the native flora places the entire habitat at risk of coinciding decline or collapse because without pollinator species, plants cannot propagate. The reverberating “butterfly effect” of losing any of these species to the effects of environmental degradation demands our attention.


Cecropia Moth

The left panel of Eco Mural 17 portrays the cecropia moth in all its soft glory, with downy wings laden by patterning that seems almost to glow. Above it grows a similarly fiery orange day lily, its bright spotted petals making it a coveted ornamental flower in native gardens. Below are tall coreopsis (coreopsis tripteris), a bright yellow herbaceous plant that provides a home to many moths and butterflies.

The cecropia moth is the largest moth in North America, with an average wingspan of 5-7 inches. It is a member of the giant silk moth family, called Saturniidae. Cecropia moths can be found throughout the hardwood forests of the eastern United States. They have red bodies and brownish-black wings with crescent shaped markings and bands of red and white ombré. Like other giant silk moths, adult cecropia moths do not have functional mouths or digestive systems, and only survive for about two weeks after the chrysalis phase. During this time, male cecropia moths will travel far and wide to find a mate, flying up to seven miles a day in pursuit of a female. Female cecropia moths emit pheromones that can be detected from a mile away by the males’ sensitive antennae. 

Cecropia moths will lay up to one hundred eggs on a host plant. Once a caterpillar hatches from an egg, it will go through five developmental stages, also called instars. As they eat and grow, they will molt from black to yellowish green to bright teal. Once a cecropia larva reaches maturity, it will spin a large brown cocoon. The adult moths emerge from their cocoons in the first warm weeks of early summer and begin their quests to find a mate, only producing one generation per year.

Cecropia moths are under particular threat from light pollution and invasive species. The tachinid fly (Compsilura concinnata) is an imminent danger to their survival, parasitically attaching itself to cecropia moths and eventually killing them. Tachinid flies were introduced to North America to control invasive gypsy moths, and now they have become a threat to native species. Each year the Pennsylvania Governor's Invasive Species Council and partners around the state celebrate Pennsylvania Native Species Day. This day is an opportunity to plan an event or activity that celebrates our native species. It is also an occasion to learn about the actions state agencies are taking to help counter the proliferation of invasive species and their increasing ecological, economic, and public health impacts in Pennsylvania. 


Luna Moth


The central panel of the triptych features the Luna Moth, its gracefully elongated wings unfurling in pale green bordered by magenta.  At the bottom left of the Luna Moth is pink and white Fall Phlox (phlox paniculata), and to at the top left is a bright yellow False Sunflower (heliopsis helianth), both of which are coveted ornamental flowers that attract many pollinator species. To the bottom right of the panel is a delicate blue violet flower, the head of Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), above which flowers a Spotted Cranesbill (geranium macula), its pale lilac petals opening to a burst of stamens. Both these flora are among the many medicinal plants that grow naturally in Pennsylvania’s wildlife and have been used for centuries by native peoples in the treatment of various maladies. The roots of the Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass are used as a tea to treat stomach maladies and the Spotted Cranesbill is taken as an astringent.

The Luna Moth is also a giant silk moth, averaging a wingspan of about 3-4 inches. Luna Moths prefer to live in deciduous forests and have an expansive range that covers the eastern half of North America. Their beautiful coloring serves as camouflage amongst the bright green leaves of the trees that they prefer to lay their eggs on. In addition to their striking green coloring, they feature distinct markings that emulate twigs with buds on their forewings to further the camouflage illusion. Scientists believe that the silky tails on the hindwings of adult Lunas may be used to disrupt the sonar calls that bats use to locate prey in the dark. Luna Moth caterpillars also have unique ways to foil predators: if camouflage fails them, they rear up into a “sphynx” position, emitting a clicking sound, and regurgitating a foul-tasting liquid.

A luna moth larva, like the cecropia, will also undergo five instars, or developmental stages, before wrapping itself in leaves and a papery cocoon to begin its metamorphosis into an adult Luna. After three weeks inside the cocoon, the metamorphosed Luna cuts its way out of its cocoon using serrated “teeth” near the base of its forewings and emerges with folded, uninflated wings. Lunas tend to exit their cocoons in the morning, allowing a day for them to inflate and dry their wings in time for the evening. Adults do not eat, living only to find a mate and reproduce within a week before they pass away. This process can be repeated up to three times between April and August, with the final round of cocooned caterpillars (pupae), falling to the leaf litter on the ground, and going dormant until the next warm season the following year.

Luna Moths are particularly affected by light pollution, which is largely unregulated within the United States. Luna Moths are attracted to light, but drawing them to our nighttime lamps and streetlights causes major harm to their reproductive cycles, which depend upon a single week’s worth of nights for Luna Moths to pick up on female pheromones, track them, locate a willing partner, and reproduce. Light pollution often thwarts those efforts, dramatically reducing the ability of Lunas to reproduce with enough numbers to support healthy populations. Due to their large size, Luna Moths are high-value prey for owls, bats, birds, and other insectivores, and as moth populations suffer, so do these valuable predators. It doesn’t take much to break the delicate chains of prey and predator within our precious wild spaces, and the fallout from the dwindling populations of Luna Moths is a great example of how that can happen. Insects are largely unrepresented in the United States’ protected species list, and so encouraging widespread wildlife conservation to ensure insects like Luna Moths have habitats to flourish in is extremely important. To learn more about the Luna Moth, please visit our Eco Mural 13 page.


Buckeye Butterfly

The left panel of Eco Mural 17 depicts a Buckeye Butterfly, with wide and delicate wings dappled by intricate patterning. Not only do moths and butterflies feed on native flora, they also make their homes among them. Much of the hardy ground covering that grows wild through the seasons provide food and shelter for moths and butterflies, such as goldenstar (chrysogonum virginicum) and Goldenrod (Asteraceae), bright yellow flowering plants portrayed around the Buckeye Butterfly. Goldenrod, the densely clustered stalked herbaceous plant to the bottom left of the butterfly, is a common nursery plant, with many insects laying their eggs on the underside of its leaves. Within one thicket of growth, an entire miniature ecosystem can be observed, delicately hanging in the balance by the destructive forces of human intervention. To the right above the Buckeye are Coneflowers (echinacea), one of the most popularly used medicinal plants that grows native in Pennsylvania’s wildlife. Echinacea is an immunostimulant which many people take to fight the common cold and other infections. All of the flora portrayed in this triptych are species which rely on pollination from species such as the Buckeye. Without pollinator species, these medicinal flowers would disappear, further emphasizing the importance of moths and butterflies for our own human population. We depend on the native environment for herbal remedies, and must prioritize the survival of these species. To learn more about the important relationship between pollinator species and their place within the larger ecosystem,  follow the link to our ‘Honey Bees and Pollination’ Eco Mural webpage.

Buckeye butterflies are members of the family Nymphalidae, which are a class of butterflies known for standing up on their back four legs. Buckeyes are mostly brown with orange, black, white, blue, and magenta features. Their patterning includes four sets of eyespots, an adaptation designed to camouflage the butterflies from predators by mimicking the eyes of larger animals. Buckeye butterflies typically have a wingspan of 2-2.5 inches, with the females being slightly larger than the males. They are very sensitive to the cold, and will migrate south on tailwinds during the first cold fronts of autumn, returning north in the spring.

Buckeye caterpillars prefer to feed on plants that produce iridoid glycosides, a bitter compound that is poisonous to many predators. As the caterpillar grows, it molts four times. Once a buckeye larva has chosen its spot to pupate, it will spin a silk pad on the plant and attach itself with a silk button. It will then hang in a J-shaped position until it sheds its final exoskeleton to reveal a chrysalis.

Buckeye butterflies are threatened by the encroachment of human activity upon their habitats. As a pollinator species, the Buckeye Butterfly is vital to the preservation and propagation of our native wildlife. Without these creatures spreading pollen from flower to flower, our habitat would suffer great losses. Not only do our flora rely on these pollinators for survival, but also many predators, including insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. The “butterfly effect” refers to the massive impact a small disturbance can have on a larger system. Given the essential role these insects play in our ecosystem, their preservation is of utmost importance to the overall health of the habitat. Pennsylvania is home to diverse wildlife that has thrived in mutual dependence for thousands of years, and it is our duty to act as stewards to this natural heritage. From flora, to butterflies and moths, to people, we are all interconnected and reliant on one another. It is vital that we concentrate conservation efforts on protecting the native habitats of Pennsylvania’s wildlife for generations to come.


If you are interested in learning more, getting involved, and gaining further resources and tools, please follow the links below:


Related Eco Mural Pages: 


Eco Mural 6: Honey Bees and Pollination


Eco Mural 14: Luna Moth

Eco Mural 15: Wild Medicine: Mugwort, Mullein, and Mallow

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