Environmental Sciences Entomologist to Travel to French Guiana in Search of White Witch Moth

Environmental Sciences Entomologist to Travel to French Guiana in Search of White Witch Moth

Published on Feb 2, 2016


Greetings from Mr. Cappaert: You may have heard about my project concerning the white witch moth, the largest insect in the world. You would think that scientists must know a lot about such a creature. They don't. In fact, no one has ever seen the caterpillar, and no one knows where the moths come from. On Feb 2, I will travel to French Guiana (just north of the Amazon River) in an effort to learn the story of the white witch.

I will be reporting back to ESM on what I see in the rainforest – probably white witch moths, and certainly lots of spiders and alligators and frogs and interesting people. 

More info on this project attached.

Also: my blog at http://www.whitewitchblog.weebly.com




I put up a couple of maps to show French Guiana compared to CT, and to South America.  The country is 6 times larger than the state of CT. But the population is only 250,000. How does that compare…

                    White witch collected in Guyana

White Witch Project
An epic educational exploration to discover the life history of the largest insect in the World. 

This February,  David Cappaert, a resident scientist at the Environmental Sciences Magnet in Hartford, will travel to French Guiana in a quest to uncover the life history of the
white witch moth, perhaps the largest insect in the world.
He will report back to ESM as he walks the Amazon rainforest
at night, hunting for answers to a 350 year old mystery.

Background:The white witch, Thysania agrippina, is one among millions of insect species. But it stands out: with a wing span >12 inches, it is among the largest insects known. So it is pretty famous, and often depicted next to human hands and rulers and small children. 
The white witch flies over most of the New World tropics, from Argentina to Mexico, and occasionally as far north as Colorado in the United States. You would suppose that scientists must know the story of such an impressive organism. We don't. The egg, pupa, and caterpillar of T. agrippina are unknown. We don't know the larval habitat or host plant. We don't know if a moth observed in the city of Quito emerged in the adjacent highlands, or in a rainforest 1000 miles distant. The White Witch Project is a collaborative effort to unlock some of these mysteries.  

The team: artist, lepidopterist, educator.  The quest originated with James Prosek, a local artist with a national reputation as a natural historian, visual artist, and author. He was fascinated by a white witch he saw mounted on the wall at a lodge in Ecuador. He asked a lot of questions about the life history of the moth. There were no answers.

Prosek brought the story to David Wagner, a UConn entomologist with special expertise in moths and caterpillars. Wagner looked at the scientific literature, and found no answers.

In 2012, Prosek and Wagner brought a local educator into the project. David Cappaert is an entomologist with a position as a Resident Scientist at the Environmental Sciences Magnet in Hartford. He was seeking a research opportunity that could involve his students in an authentic scientific endeavor.

Beginning in 2014, Prosek, Wagner and Cappaert collaborated on a grant from the Richard P. Garmany Fund of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which included support for the white witch investigation. As a first step they assembled all of the scientific and anecdotal accounts available in the literature, on the Internet, and through personal correspondence. They created a www site (http://whitewitchwatch.weebly.com/).

The trip to French Guiana.  Of course our search for a tropical moth has to go to the tropics. French Guiana, a small country north of Brazil,  appears to be a particularly rich hunting ground. In exceptional years, collectors see 100s at one location. Cappaert’s trip will target the optimal time for nocturnal observations of the moths (and caterpillars): new moon in the first weeks of the rainy season. Of course there are no guarantees: in some years, the moths don’t show up. But regardless, the educational yield will be enormous. With interactive journal entries and daily video documents, Cappaert will share with his audience back in Hartford all of the incidental treasures on display in the rainforest. In advance of the trip, he has already begun to discuss with his students the curricular connections: ecology, geography, culture, and the process of authentic scientific research.  

Contacts:    David Cappaert, Environmental Sciences Magnet at Mary Hooker

          440 Broadview Terrace, Hartford CT 06106
          734-635-7750  cappd001@hartfordschools.org

David Wagner, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
University of Connecticut,
75 N. Eagleville Road, U-43
Storrs, CT 06269-3043
(860) 486-2139   david.wagner@uconn.edu

White Witch Watch: (http://whitewitchwatch.weebly.com/

White Witch Blog at ESM: (http://whitewitchblog.weebly.com/

Where does the name “white witch” come from?The first naturalists exploring the New World tropics needed samples of the birds and bats flying high in the forest canopy. So they “sampled” them with shotguns. An enormous moth flying at dusk through the trees would be an attractive target; however the shotgun pellets were unlikely to hit the relatively small body of the moth, so it would continue soaring along, an unkillable witch.

An artistic connection:

The painting here is a 1705 work of Maria Sybilla Merian, a German bo
rn artist and naturalist that explored the jungles of Suriname. She shows us a white witch moth, and the eggs, caterpillar, and pupal stages. It would appear that the white witch life cycle has been understood for 360 years…..However: Though the moth is rendered accurately, the other life stages are implausible. The white witch is an owlet moth. According to David Wagner (who wrote a book on owlet moths), the depicted immature stages are a mish-mash of features of silk moths, hawk moths, and spiders (the egg mass).

David Cappaert

Greenhouse/Vivarium Scientist

Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker

Serving students Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 8

440 Broadview Terrace

Hartford, CT 06106

734.635-7750 cell



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