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Mysterious, Majestic Moths at the Museum

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On Exhibit posts

Most moth species are very small and are active only at night, so we don't often get to examine them up close. But in Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large, a special exhibition of oversized prints by Canadian artist Jim des Rivières, visitors can pore over the insects in glorious detail. 

Enjoy a sampling of images here, but, for the full effect of these much-magnified, super-saturated images, come to the Museum to view them in person. 

Though exotic-looking at first glance, all 31 species featured in the exhibition are relatively common, and all are from North America. In life, the wings of the cecropia moth, below, measure about 6 inches across, making it one of the continent’s largest native species.

Cecropia moth
Cecropia moth
© Jim des Rivières


The largest three prints in the exhibition measure 3 feet high and 80 inches wide—about the width of some New York City subway cars.

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


During the day, most moth species hold still—“they are very good hiders,” says des Rivières. They also fold their four wings back over their bodies, often hiding spectacular coloration underneath. Below is a banded tussock moth, with its wings folded back.

Banded tussock moth
Banded tussock moth
© Jim des Rivières


All moths have feathery or threadlike antennae, but in some species the males have far larger headgear. Why? To sense the pheromones of a fertile female, whose own antennae are small and thin. Note the difference in antennae in the two images of the male and female luna moths, below.

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



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

Moths are actually furry! Many species’ bodies and wings are covered in small scales, which are modified hairs. “Sometimes,” notes David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum, “visitors go up to the prints and try to pet them—but please don't touch,” he adds. “Its just that the scans and prints are that detailed.”

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

How were these stunning, much-magnifed images created?

Des Rivières, a photographer, collected the moths near a cabin in the woods not far from Ottawa, Canada, where he lives. Later, using a regular office scanner, he scanned the insects housed in a black box. “They are creatures of the night,” explains des Rivières, so a black background suits them. (For dayflying butterflies he uses a white background.) Then, he printed out the high-resolution images using a giant, 44-inch printer.

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 at the American Museum of Natural History is made possible by the generosity of 
the Arthur Ross Foundation.