Our oldest son, Asher, has always been a little scientist. Spencer and Genevieve have followed right along in the same manner, and now they all explore our natural world together, but Asher, being the oldest, just happened to be the first.
He likes to turn over leaves. He likes to crack open rocks. He likes to look under rocks. And whenever something begins to capture his interest, he wants to learn everything about it!
Ever since he was about 6 years old, he has been happy to sit down with a field guide and read the entire thing. And not only that, when we go out on a walk, he’ll see something and say, “Oh, that’s the such-and-such-an-insect, I saw that in the field guide.” When he was younger, I was suspicious, and I would get the field guide and check. 9 times out of 10, he was correct. The 10th time, he was close, and we would look at the markings and talk about why it was this one-other-similar-thing, instead.
He has been through this particular cycle of interest on rocks and minerals, on insects, on marine life, on pond life, and then specifically on microscopic organisms, both saltwater and freshwater. With each new spark of interest, Joe and I have made sure we had plenty of good reference materials, and plenty of good exploration outings, and we have all learned a great deal along the journey!
Today, Asher’s interest basically extends across all of the living things of God’s creation, and he will as readily identify trees and mosses, birds and animal tracks, even wildflowers…But I think some of his particular interest in the smaller things, like tiny pond organisms, insects, and tidepool life, is that he can put his hands on them, maybe even bring them inside and study them under the microscope, which we won’t let him do with birds and bunnies and porcupines!
In years past, Asher’s fascination with insects (of which there is no shortage in Maine forests!) led him to learn a lot about specimen preservation. How to capture, how to anesthetize, how to pin, how to preserve.
And so it came to pass that this fall was a year of caterpillars…All kinds of caterpillars, caterpillars everywhere, everyday a new caterpillar, many that we had never seen before! Everyone was finding caterpillars, and bringing them to Asher to identify. He would figure out what they were, what they ate, what they would turn into. We have a little butterfly net-cage, and Joe allowed Asher to keep some caterpillars inside and feed them and watch them turn into cocoons or chrysalises, and then emerge! It’s a beautiful experience to watch a life cycle, and we watched and released a Rusty Tussock moth and a Pearl Crescent butterfly before the fall was over.
But as winter approached, there were still a few cocoons and chrysalises remaining in the cage…What to do? Joe agreed that we could keep them inside over the winter and see what happened.
And what happened was that Asher went upstairs to check on them one day, and a brand-new Polyphemus Moth had just emerged!
He was so very lovely, and such a pleasure to see up-close!
“What should we feed him?” I asked. Asher said he didn’t think that they ate at all, but only mated, and then perished, but he went off to double-check. Sure enough, this stunning little moth only lives for a few days, and is most active at night, which explains why, though they are very common, we have yet to see one wild.
They literally don’t even have any mouth parts. The males spend their few days mating…The females, once they have mated once, spend their few days laying eggs! Polyphemus caterpillars molt through 5 distinct phases, or instars. The phases are so different from each other that Asher captured an early-instar and a final-instar, thinking they were two completely different species. The caterpillars eat and grow for a couple of months, so we get to see plenty of them, but we will have to make some special efforts if we want to observe the small window of this beautiful moth’s adult life in the wild!
They are a fascinating example of how, just when you think you know something quite simple, like the butterfly life cycle, you realize how very much more detail and variety God designs into every one of His uniquely-formed creatures!
Having recently emerged, and only just straightened his wings, our Polyphemus moth was doing a lot of walking, but not flying yet. We had the rare opportunity to take turns holding him and admiring him for quite a while before he started wanting to flutter around.
He has a very unusual body, very plump and fuzzy all over. His large, furry legs look more like they belong on a spider, and he was very tickle-y as he explored all of our hands and arms!
Since he emerged in our house in the middle of winter with no females available, and no opportunity to live out his natural life in the wild, this sweet little guy was destined for a peaceful demise in the freezer, followed by preservation as a specimen to be enjoyed for many years to come!
For the most part, we tend to let the wild things be wild. We like to enjoy them in their native environment, and let them live as God designed them to live. But there are also opportunities where we can learn and appreciate more about something by capturing it and studying it…And though I was a little bit sad that this moth wouldn’t be able to complete his life cycle in nature, I was also grateful that we got to enjoy a perspective that would have been hard to capture any other way.
The truth is, God has made all of His creation for His own glory and placed it under the dominion of men…And if we interact with our world, in the wild or in our studies, in respect and honor and admiration of God’s creation, with wonder and awe and praise for what we discover about Him through His works, then we will continue to glorify Him in all things!
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.(Genesis 1:28, KJV)
You can read more about the Polyphemus Moth at the University of Florida’s Featured Creatures.