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Moths at Large at the Museum

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By far the largest and oldest group in the order Lepidoptera, moths are usually overshadowed by their flashier cousins, the butterflies. But they are finally getting their due in Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large, a photo exhibition now open at the Museum.

Luna moth, female, Jim des Rivieres
Luna moth, female
© Jim des Rivières

 “Few people realize that butterflies are moths,” says David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, who oversaw the exhibition. “It is very important to dispel the artificial and unnatural distinction between butterflies and moths. Butterflies are merely a small, recently evolved line of day-flying moths. Saying there are two categories of Lepidoptera is like saying there are trees and there are maples."


Male luna moth Jim des Rivieres
Luna moth, male
© Jim des Rivières

Primitive moths appeared about 195 million years ago, whereas the oldest butterfly fossil is about 55 million years old. Today, moths outnumber butterflies 15 to 1, with approximately 150,000 described species of moths worldwide, compared to 10,000 butterfly species.

Polyphemus moth
Polyphemus moths (Antheraea polyphemus), like other members of the giant silkworm family, have wingspans of up to 6 inches.
© Jim des Rivières

Accompanying the photo exhibition, which originated at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, are specimens from the Museum’s collection. With some 3.5 million specimens, the Museum’s collection of moths and butterflies is among the five largest in the world. 

In Winged Tapestries, 34 large-format images, scanned at a very high resolution by Ottawa-based photographer Jim des Rivières, reveal moths, however small, to be striking in their diversity and eye-catching detail. While moths tend to be less brightly colored, they often exhibit more complex patterns, intricate paisleys and tweeds.

Once-married underwing moth Jim des Rivieres
Once-married underwing moth
© Jim des Rivières

“Although people can still see plenty of lovely live species in The Butterfly Conservatory,” says Dr. Grimaldi, who is also the curator of The Butterfly Conservatory: Tropical Butterflies Alive in Winter, “in this photo show, we have macro or relatively large moths. They’re gorgeous and fairly common species in North America.” In contrast to diurnal butterflies, which are thought to warn off predators or attract mates with their brilliance, moths are camouflaged to function at night. “Butterflies are conspicuous,” Grimaldi says. “They advertise themselves. Moths don’t.”

A version of this story appeared in Rotunda, the Member magazine. To learn more about Museum membership, click here.

Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large, featuring the art of Jim des Rivières, is produced by the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Canada.

The presentation of Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large at the American Museum of Natural History is made possible by the generosity of the Arthur Ross Foundation.

Lord & Taylor is the proud sponsor of The Butterfly Conservatory.