Sunday, July 29, 2007

Scarlet Tiger Moth Panaxia dominula

I am an amateur naturalist on a mission to blog everything living in my garden.
Having blogged my first butterfly in my previous posting, it seems only fair that today's posting should feature an example of the butterflys' close cousins, the moths. Photo 1 (click to enlarge) shows a Scarlet Tiger moth, Callimorpha (formerly Panaxia) dominula. I photographed it in my garden at (0,2) (see here) enjoying one of this summer's rare moments of sunshine.

Scarlet tiger's give the lie to the commonly held belief that :

i) moths only fly at night (Scarlet tiger's are active during the day),


ii) moths are the drab, unattractive cousins of butterflies. Not true here, I'm sure you'll agree! Furthermore, what my camera exposure hasn't well captured is the attractive yellow colour of certain of the wing spots. Also, had I succeeded in photographing my moth in flight you'd have seen the wonderful bright red underwings (just a thin section are visible in the photo).

The caterpillars of Scarlet Tiger's are black and orange with spiky hairs . I haven't yet found any in my garden but there's a nice photo on Ian Kimber's UK Moths site. They are fond of nettle and dead nettle, but especially comfrey.

It is a fascinating feature of so many of the garden creatures I am discovering through this blog, that they are interesting not only to an amateur such as myself, but that their forms and behaviours also present a challenge to the very best theories of the professionals. A reminder that no one need travel to exotic jungles to discover something new in nature: the back garden is far enough!

In the case of the Scarlet Tiger a challenge to the professionals seems to be to understand the existence of a number of Scarlet Tiger sub-species with slightly differing wing-spot patterns in terms of genetic- and evolutionary theory. If you're like me, the details are hard to follow, but you can get a flavour of the discussion from online scientific papers such as those here, here and here. The first of these, by Fisher and Ford, also includes pictures of the various wing patterns. The debate seems to be over whether the separate subspecies of Scarlet Tiger are a consequence of natural selection or a consequence of so-called "genetic drift" (i.e. that the natural world is such a complex place that there's always the opportunity for species to vary and survive by simple luck and happenstance). Or at least that's my extremely limited understanding of things. Maybe someone more expert can provide a better explanation?

As a resident, a particularly nice thing for me to discover from skimming the papers above was that Oxfordshire is the place to be for Scarlet Tiger moth study! The population of Scarlet Tiger's at Oxfordshire's Cothill Fen Nature reserve has been rigorously recorded and studied for almost sixty years. I live about 10miles from Cothill. I just wonder... before it found its way into my garden, was my moth was having his particulars noted down, ready for publication in some learned scientific journal ?!


Laura said...

God I love moths.

R2K said...

Great work as always. I love the cap print made from spores. Always reading about naturalists and they seem to do things like that and keep files on every print made. Imagine if you took several hundred prints of the same species with some info on each (time of year, location, mass of cap)? That is science gold!

Henry Walloon said...

Laura - pure joie de vivre! Thankyou for such a heart warming comment.

R2K - I couldn't agree more sir! I'm learning there's no limit to the "science gold" that could be extracted from the back garden (US 'yard'!)

Laura said...

r2k will prob'ly not remember that I made a comment on a picture of some such insect wing scales under a microsope on his blog. Have you had a chance to do this? Moth dust is very beautiful and a little bittersweet in its inspection.

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