Luna moths grace the landscape of Mount Auburn Cemetery


But Kwiatkowski, along with citizen scientists and horticulturists at the historic cemetery that straddles parts of Cambridge and Watertown, are working on an ongoing project to help breed, introduce and preserve luna butterflies to the cemetery landscape.

Kwiatkowski said he saw luna moths when he was growing up in Spencer, but he didn’t see any in Mount Auburn or eastern Massachusetts.

“They’re not endangered, but they’re rare in urban areas,” Kwiatkowski said. “They are more likely to be seen in rural areas.”

Kwiatkowski said a Mount Auburn citizen science volunteer with a passion for moths and experience in breeding them first approached him in 2020 with the proposal to release luna moths and cecropia – another large species of colorful moth – at Mount Auburn Cemetery, but the idea for the project was shelved until 2021 due to the pandemic.

The purpose of the Moth Project is to create breeding populations that allow visitors to see luna and cecropia butterflies at the cemetery in late spring and early summer.

“It’s a wonderful experience for visitors,” Kwiatkowski said. “And that increases species diversity at Mount Auburn.”

A luna moth caterpillar at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Mount Auburn Cemetery Citizen Science Volunteer

Luna moths are also part of the food web, Kwiatkowski explained. Animals including birds, bats, frogs, hornets and beetles feed on caterpillars and adults.

Matthew Stephens, president and CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery, added that while Mount Auburn is an active cemetery, it should also be considered a place to live.

“People walking, old trees, moths and other wildlife,” Stephens said. “We work hard to position Mount Auburn as a cultural institution – a place people seek refuge, to have a moment to escape chaos or reality, and be inspired by the miraculous in nature.”

Kwiatkowski said Mount Auburn Cemetery is an important green space in an urban setting, and currently has several field projects underway, including a habitat restoration project, a citizen science naturalist program, and the reintroduction of several species of vernal pool breeding frogs and toads to the cemetery.

“We can serve as a field space and living lab for schools, colleges and summer camps,” Kwiatkowski said.

Kwiatkowski said he is also engaged in ongoing discussions about the possible expansion of the luna moth project to the Fresh Pond reservation in Cambridge and the Middlesex Fells reservation in the northern suburbs of Boston.

Regarding the breeding of luna butterflies, Kwiatkowski said that after the chrysalis – the stage of development between caterpillars and adult butterflies – metamorphoses into adults, the female butterflies are put in cages where they release pheromones. that attract male luna moths.

The butterflies then mate at the edge of the cages. The females lay eggs in the cages, which the project team collects and places on the leaves of a host plant, in this case sweet gums in the yard of a Mount Auburn volunteer citizen scientist.

Can you spot this adult luna butterfly amid the foliage of Mount Auburn Cemetery?Mount Auburn Cemetery

When the eggs hatch, the leaves containing the young caterpillars are removed, and these leaves are transported and clipped onto the leaves of the sweetgum trees at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The caterpillars, which are a bright lime green color with spikes on their backs, feed on sweetgum leaves throughout the summer and grow to about 2½ inches long. Kwiatkowski said luna moth caterpillars are also known to feed on the leaves of hickory, birch, red maple, white oak and sassafras.

“The caterpillars wrap themselves in a liquidambar leaf and fall to the ground, when all the tree leaves fall to the ground in autumn,” Kwiatkowski explained. “The pupal stage begins when the larva [caterpillars] wrapped themselves in a leaf from the tree and formed a cocoon by closing it and securing it with silk.

The pupae are then collected from the ground and placed in a wooden box to overwinter, Kwiatkowski said. The box provides protection from predators and resembles a bird box, which is attached to a post. In early spring, the pupae are moved into a protective cage, which is attached to the top of the wooden box on the post.

In late May and early June, adult luna butterflies emerge from the pupa, mate and lay eggs, and the butterfly life cycle begins again.

Both female and male luna moths die about five to seven days after emerging from the pupa, Kwiatkowski explained. They do not have functional mouthparts, so they cannot feed. They mate and reproduce, then they die.

It seems sad that such a beautiful creature has such a fleeting existence. But Stephens said he really liked this aspect of the moon butterfly’s life cycle.

“Luna Butterflies exist for a fleeting moment,” Stephens said. “It’s something that matches the ups and downs of life that remind us of working in an active graveyard – you never know what tomorrow might bring.”

Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your suburban nature and wildlife questions to [email protected].


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