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FIELD GUIDE

Luna moths grace the landscape at Mount Auburn Cemetery

This new adult luna moth has just emerged from a coccoon and is drying its wings prior to an initial nocturnal flight.DEAN FOSDICK/Associated Press

With a typical wingspan of about 4½ inches, long, graceful tails on their hindwings, and a light green color, luna moths are one of the largest and most beautiful moths in North America.

Named for the moon-like spots on their wings, luna moths are found from southern Canada to Florida, and west to East Texas and eastern North Dakota.

Unfortunately, these nocturnal moths have become less common in parts of Massachusetts because of habitat destruction, light pollution, and pesticides, said Paul Kwiatkowski, director of urban ecology and sustainability at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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

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Kwiatkowski said he saw luna moths when he was growing up in Spencer, but he hadn’t seen any at Mount Auburn or in Eastern Massachusetts.

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

Kwiatkowski said a Mount Auburn citizen science volunteer who is a moth enthusiast and had experience raising them first reached out to him in 2020 with the proposal to release luna moths and cecropia moths — another large, colorful moth species — at Mount Auburn Cemetery, but the project idea was tabled until 2021 because of the pandemic.

The purpose of the moth project is to build breeding populations that enable visitors to see luna and cecropia moths at the cemetery in late spring and early summer.

“It’s a wonderful visitor experience,” said Kwiatkowski. “And it increases the diversity of species at Mount Auburn.”

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

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

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Matthew Stephens, president and CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery, added that although Mount Auburn is an active burial ground, it should be seen as a place for life, too.

“People walking, 100-year-old plus trees, moths, and other wildlife,” said Stephens. “We’re working hard to position Mount Auburn to be a cultural institution — a place people seek out to give them refuge, to have a moment to escape chaos or reality and be inspired by the miraculousness of nature.”

Kwiatkowski said Mount Auburn Cemetery is an important green space in an urban environment, and currently has a number of 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 act as a field space and a living laboratory for schools, colleges, and summer camps,” said Kwiatkowski.

Kwiatkowski said he also is engaged in ongoing discussions about possibly expanding the luna moth project to the Fresh Pond Reservation in Cambridge and the Middlesex Fells Reservation in the suburbs north of Boston.

With regard to breeding luna moths, Kwiatkowski said after the pupa — the developmental stage between caterpillars and adult moths — metamorphose into adults, the female moths are put in cages where they release pheromones that attract male luna moths.

The moths then mate at the edge of the cages. The females lay eggs in the cages, which the project team collects and puts on the leaves of a host plant, in this case, sweetgum trees in a Mount Auburn citizen scientist volunteer’s yard.

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Can you spot this adult luna moth amid the foliage at Mount Auburn Cemetery?Mount Auburn Cemetery

When the eggs hatch, the leaves containing the young caterpillars are removed, and those leaves are transported and clipped onto the leaves of sweetgum trees at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The caterpillars, which are a bright lime green color with spikes on their backs, feed on the 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 sweetgum leaf and fall to the ground, when all the tree leaves fall to the ground in autumn,” Kwiatkowski explained. “The pupa stage begins when larva [caterpillars] have wrapped themselves in a leaf in the tree and formed a cocoon by spinning it closed and securing it with silk.”

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

In late May and early June, the adult luna moths emerge from the pupa, mate, and lay eggs, and the moths’ life cycle begins anew.

Both the female and male luna moths die about five to seven days after emerging from the pupa, Kwiatkowski explained. They have no functioning mouth parts, so they can’t feed. They mate and reproduce, then they die.

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It seems sad that such a beautiful creature has such an ephemeral existence. But Stephens said that aspect of the luna moth’s life cycle actually appeals to him.

“Luna moths exist for a fleeting moment,” said Stephens. “That’s something that parallels the highs and lows of life that we’re reminded of working in an active cemetery — you never know what tomorrow could bring.”

Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to donlymannature@gmail.com.