Urania fulgens story
jmason at ink.org
Tue Nov 24 10:35:15 EST 1998
Here is the text of the story on Urania fulgens from the 11/23 issue of The
Monitor from McAllen TX. Some good press coverage for one of the "little
things that run the world"!
jmason at ink.org
November 23, 1998
Copyright 1998 The iridescent immigrant
By GILLIAN SWANSON
SAN BENITO They suspect it rode in on the wind.
A disoriented moth traveled thousands of miles from Central America on
Hurricane Mitchs coattails, only to have its life cut short Nov. 1 when it
was slammed by a South Texas truck.
Moments before the incident, San Benito resident Dr. Terry Fuller watched as
the vivid flash of iridescent green skipped across a field to the side of
Helen Moore Road.
"It was so dramatic ... so colorful, flying in the daytime. I never would
have thought it was a moth," Fuller said.
A birder and butterfly enthusiast, Fuller reeled off lists of butterflies in
his mind as he watched, trying to categorize the species from its glittering
green color and swallowtail grooves.
He has counted and identified 235 birds and 56 species of butterflies flying
through his own back yard on their way south or back north again, but the
flashes of green stripes were unlike anything he had ever witnessed.
When the creature flew into the truck, then tumbled to the pavement, Fuller
went to retrieve it. Gently picking it up off the road, he noticed a
discrepancy in the antennae. Butterflies instead have club-like pairs. This
one had antennae with tiny end points.
Fuller raced home to flip through photos in his butterfly book, but came up
He later discovered his butterfly was actually a moth common in Central and
South America. The species had no business being this far north, and
therefore was not listed in North American and Mexican butterfly books.
"Its as out of place as a big giant mammal crossing the road," Fuller said.
"Probably secondary to (Hurricane) Mitch, the moths were driven farther
north. Normally, they dont come up here."
After posting its description on a Website for Texas bird and butterfly
aficionados, in less then 24 hours, a flood of responses came in from
butterfly cyberspace as far away as Australia and Russia.
It is formally known for its Latin name, Urania fulgens. Enthusiasts refer
to it as the "swallow-tailed moth," or also the "the Mexican sunset moth,"
because it is diurnal, unlike most moths, which fly at night.
What Fuller had found was rare indeed. So rare that in Texas, this was only
the third official record of the moth being seen. Nationally, it may be
either the third or fourth.
Mike Quinn, and entomologist and vice president of the South Texas Chapter
of the North American Butterfly Association, initially was stumped by the
"It is breathtaking, iridescent. ... Its a large showy thing," Quinn said.
"You know youve got something when you see that thing.
"I went through all my sources, including Mariposa Mexicana (a Mexican
butterfly guide), and it wasnt in there. It only dawned on me the next day
that the attachment, one of the antennae, was threadlike. Thats kind of a
key that designates it as a moth," he said.
Unlike moths that fly at night, the swallow-tailed moth is brightly colored,
much like a monarch, and flashes its wings as a warning. Colored wings
indicate it is poisonous and act as a defense against day predators.
"Moths that are only out at night do not have these toxins," Quinn said.
The toxins come from the swallow-tailedc moth feeding on genus omphalea
(euphorbiaceae), a poisonous, milky sap that moths in a caterpillar state
can tolerate, but which is toxic to predators. Monarch butterflies, which
feed on toxic milkweed, display a vibrant orange color.
For someone who avidly watches winged creatures, sighting the moth -- his
second novel sighting -- rivals his first big sighting: the fifth sighting
in the United States of a Mexican hummingbird called the green-breasted
The swallow-tailed moth now is protected in a Styrofoam case, with paper to
hold its wings in place while it dries. Fuller intends to do more research
on his moth, and eventually will have it officially recorded as a state
With new species of butterflies being identified and recorded in the Rio
Grande Valley, Fuller said, he hopes his contribution will help mark South
Texas as rare butterfly sighting hot spot, as well as a great birding area.
"People need to know about these rare things," he said.
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