Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mystery moth From Fairyland? With Karl Shuker














This is a neat article on the likely  origins of the sprite mythos which never otherwise made much sense.  However a singing moth capable of flying in an upright stance certainly can be convincing and its obvious shyness around large beings makes it unlikely to hang around for a close inspection.  

It is also a reminder that rarities amply exist and that direct observation will be always sporadic and dependent on luck.  It also means that the job is long from been done also.

I think this will turn out to be newly observed behavior of an established species. We clearly need more trained observers out there.


Thursday, 17 July 2014

A snowberry clearwing – the identity of this ShukerNature blog article's North American mystery moth?

Occasionally, a mystery animal report so strange and singular comes to light that it defies any serious attempt at explanation.

One such example was forwarded on 26 May 1998 to what later became the cryptozoology discussion group (now defunct) by its founder, American cryptozoologist Chad Arment. He had received it from a Tennessee correspondent, and it reads as follows:

"The insect that I saw was humming a song. I was on top of a hill and thought that I was hearing a radio or something like that but I noticed this little bug [and] the closer it got the more like a song it became. This little bug was flying upright like a ...fairy! I was really excited because I thought what I saw was what people in earlier times might have mistaken for real sprites. This bug went from tree to tree and from flower to flower stopping at each one. I didn't see it eat anything but like I said I was excited. It was about 2" long "tall" and white[,] had blue eyes large almond shaped and long antennae that hung like hair. It was really quite intriguing but as I moved to get a better look it saw me and went horizontal and was off like a shot.  Also the humming stopped when it saw me and it just buzzed away."

Could it have been a hummingbird, rather than an insect? Tennessee has records of seven different hummingbird species, of which one (the ruby-throated hummingbird Archilochus colubris) breeds here and a second (the rufous hummingbird Selasphorus rufus) is a regular visitor. Apart from rare albinos, however, hummingbirds are not white, nor do they possess almond-shaped eyes and/or antennae, and anyone living in an area where they are common is unlikely to mistake them for insects, especially as hummingbirds are such familiar birds in those areas.
Albino ruby-throated hummingbird (© Marlin Shank)

Conversely, after reading through this extraordinary report, images of hawk moths readily come to mind, in particular something along the lines of the hummingbird hawk moth Macroglossum stellatarum – named after its famously deceptive outward and behavioural similarity to a bona fide hummingbird. Having said that, this insect is an exclusively Old World species, but might there perhaps be an undiscovered New World representative?

1840s colour illustration of the hummingbird hawk moth, from John Curtis's British Entomology

More plausible is that it was a specimen of what is commonly termed a hummingbird hawk moth in the Americas but known in the Old World as a bee hawk moth. Four species belonging to the genus Hemaris are known from North and South America.

The common clearwing (© Mdf/Wikipedia)

Day-flying, they do resemble hummingbirds, but with transparent wings (earning them the alternative name of clearwing moths) that make them look somewhat ethereal too. Moreover, I have seen photos of these fascinating little insects in which their shiny compound eyes appear blue in colour, and at least two species, the snowberry clearwing Hemaris diffinis and common clearwing H. thysbe, are indeed native to Tennessee. Many thanks also to Lamont Cranston for bringing to my attention an online page (click here) of photos depicting these latter species in many in-flight poses, including vertical ones corresponding to the Tennessee eyewitness's above-quoted description of the mystery moth.

Sadly, however, with only a single report on file, there seems little chance of ever obtaining a conclusive identification for Tennessee's entomological fairy (for my ShukerNature investigation of another enigmatic lepidopteran - the Venezuelan poodle moth - click here).

Vintage illustration of a moth-winged fairy (public domain)

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