The Polyphemus moth, Antheraea polyphemus, is a North American member of the family Saturniidae, the giant silk moths. It is a tan colored moth, with an average wingspan of 6 inches. The most notable feature of the moth is its large, purplish eyespots on its two hindwings. The eye spots are where it gets its name, from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus. The caterpillar of the Polyphemus moth can eat 86,000 times its weight in a little less than two months. It is widespread throughout much of North America, from southern Canada to parts of Mexico.
The Polyphemus moth uses defense mechanisms to protect itself from predators. One of its most distinctive mechanisms is a distraction pattern that serves to confuse, or simply distract, predators. This involves the large eyespots on its hindwing. Eyespots are also startle patterns, a subform of distraction patterns, used for camouflage via deceptive and blending coloration. Most startle patterns are brightly colored areas on the outer body of already camouflaged animals.
Another example of the use of startle patterns is the gray tree frog, with its bright yellow leggings. When it leaps, a flash of bright yellow appears on its hindlegs, usually startling the predator away from its prey. It is believed that distraction patterns are a form of mimicry, meant to misdirect predators by markings on the moths’ wings.
Pests of the moths can become a problem. Parasitic insects such as some species of wasps and flies lay their eggs in or on the young caterpillars. The eggs then hatch into larvae which consume the insides of the caterpillars. Once the caterpillars pupate, the larvae themselves pupate, killing the pupa. Squirrels have also been known to consume the pupae of polyphemus moths, decreasing the population greatly. Pruning of trees and leaving outdoor lights on at night can also be detrimental to the polyphemus moths.