Thursday, March 22 , 2018, 9:58 am | Light Rain Fog/Mist 60º


Two Species of Giant Flying Insects Recorded for First Time in Santa Barbara

The first giant swallowtail to be documented in Santa Barbara. Welcome to the neighborhood! Click to view larger
The first giant swallowtail to be documented in Santa Barbara. Welcome to the neighborhood! (SBMNH photo)

Matthew Gimmel, curator of entomology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History recently published the discovery of expanded migration of the giant swallowtail butterfly and the giant sphinx moth.

The giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, is the largest butterfly in the United States, with some specimens of this species measuring almost six inches in wingspan. Common in the southeastern United States and southeastern Arizona, the butterfly has been gradually extending its range westward across the Mojave Desert, over the mountains of San Diego County, and up the coast to Ventura.

This year, the butterfly gained a foothold in the central coast and was finally sighted (and captured once) in Hope Ranch, on the Mesa and in Goleta Valley during September and October. 

With our abundance of orange trees, a preferred food plant for the caterpillars, and bougainvillea bushes, a favorite nectar source for the adults, our city provides a great environment for the giant swallowtail's long-term survival, and it will no doubt be here for many years to come.

Meanwhile, an unexpected giant species of moth showed up on Paulette Ferrari’s front lawn on Bath Street.

One of the largest moths in North America, the giant sphinx moth, Cocytius antaeus, is a bulky moth measuring over five and a half inches in wingspan, was spotted floundering in the grass one day during late September.

The giant sphinx moth are commonly found in Central and South America, and it is a permanent resident in Florida. However, they are strong fliers and are known to regularly stray north to Texas and Arizona. They have even been reported as far north as Chicago.

This is the first record of the moth for the state of California and it is unlikely that the species is here to stay in Santa Barbara.

Both specimens have been deposited in the insect collection of the SBMNH. The museum’s research collection contains hundreds of thousands of preserved insect specimens, primarily from California, that serve to document the current and historical occurrences of our species.

— Jashua Bane represents the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

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