Living in the comparatively unspoilt French countryside, one comes to appreciate the richness and variety of the wildlife. How about this for a wingspan? 14 cm is not very big compared to an A380 but when you’re a moth it’s pretty impressive. This is the Great Peacock Moth, Saturnia pyri, also known as the Great Emperor Moth. In French it’s a Grand Paon de Nuit (Great Night Peacock). And it’s the biggest moth in Europe.
This moth is present in western and southern Europe but not in the UK. So we had never seen one until we moved here and were impressed by its size. Now is the time of year when they emerge from their pupae and we hope we might see one or two soon, although it’s some years since we last did. Their numbers are said to be declining, unfortunately, which no doubt accounts for this.
The Grand Paon is easily confused with a smaller version, le Petit Paon, which has very similar colours and markings. But that one has a wingspan of 5.5 to 8 cms, whereas the male Grand Paon can attain a wingspan of up to 20 cm.
The male is distinguished from the female by its feathery antennae. These are, apparently, scent detectors, since the female gives off an odour. She doesn’t possess such splendid protuberances.
The poor things don’t have any way of feeding and their function is purely to reproduce. So they die after about a week, hopefully having fulfilled this role. They mate at night, which is when the female emits her scent, and I have read accounts of 40 or so males flying about desperately trying to mate with a single female.
The ones we have seen have mostly been dead already (like the one next to the ruler above). But we did once come across a pair mating.
The caterpillar is also an extraordinary creature. It’s a big, fat, green thing covered with hairy turquoise bumps. I have seen one, making its stately way up our stone table. It spins itself a cocoon in the crook of a branch and overwinters there, undergoing the metamorphosis that will transform it into the magnificent adult version.
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