Saturday, July 27, 2013

On Hawk Moths (and other lepidopterans in Fiji)


This blog is named for the Sphingidae, a family of large-bodied moths commonly known as sphinx moths, hawk moths, and hornworms. The roughly 1,500 known species that compose this family are most well represented in the tropics, but have a globally cosmopolitan distribution. 


Although their large size may be imposing, sphingid moths can’t bite or sting. They are nectivores much like hummingbirds, pollinating flowers at dusk with a long coiled tongue (called a proboscis). The lengths of this tongue are quite impressive, reaching 14 inches in one East African species (Morgan’s Sphinx, Xanthopan morgani).

The discovery of this particular moth also provided early evidence for The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. In the mid-1800s Charles Darwin was working on plant-pollinator relationships, and came across Angraecum sesquipedale, a Malagasy orchid with an unusually long nectary (up to two feet). He predicted that a moth must exist with an equally long proboscis (unprecedented at the time), to pollinate the flower. This moth (X. morgani) was discovered 21 years after Darwin’s death, corroborating a prediction he had made decades earlier, based on the

principles outlined in The Origin. 


During our recent time in Fiji, the team encountered several species of sphingids in the rural village of Naigigi. I did not observe any large moths in Suva, but perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. Certainly in Naigigi the moths presented themselves willingly. There, they hummed around lanterns and clung conspicuously to the curtains.

16 sphingid moths are known from Fiji, catalogued by The Bishop Museum in their three-year NSF-funded survey of terrestrial arthropods in the archipelago. The museum’s complete checklists of Fijian insects are available in PDF format here, with the order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) found here. 


The moths photographed in this post are species observed in Naigigi. I'm no entomologist, but I'd guess that photos 1 and 4 are Theretra nessus (subspecies?), and that the little greenish guy in photos 2 and 3 is Gnathothlibus erotus.

We also saw several other lepidopterans in Fiji. I don't have the IDs for these guys yet, but some time with The Bishop checklists should be illuminating.


Thursday, July 18, 2013


Relative permanence. Exhale. #NYC

Kale, garlic, and onions come together over a low flame. The rice is done and keeps warm in a sauce pot on the stove. A touch of sweet chili sauce and dinner is ready. My bare feet dance around this kitchen, slapping the shiny hardwood floor in rhythm with Beirut's '06 album, Gulag Orkestar (check Mount Wroclair/ Idle Days below).

Kitchen in my hauz!

Made it. Live here. Manhattan, ladies and gentlemen, is home. This morning I explored the neighborhood, happened upon a bi-weekly farmers market at the end of my block (serendipitous, no?), got the aforementioned produce for dinner, and then headed downtown for a bike ride through central park. It's brutally hot and humid, but sweat on my neck and salt on my lips only add to the romance of all this change.

There's a farmer's market at the end of my block, and everyone speaks Spanish! Two birds, one stone. Dinner

Thank gosh for hot nights and good music in a new town. 
Thank gosh for great apartments, and for nestling in. 
Thank gosh for all of that backpack living, and for a slow transition from life on the road to permanence...what a beautiful thing.

Dancing, making dinner with goodies from the farmers market, and appreciating the   view. Who lives over there? Want to talk through an aluminum can telephone?

Thursday, July 4, 2013



It's been a long night. Now, somehow, I am sitting on an autobus parked in the bowels of a huge ferryboat. There are half a dozen other buses down here too, crammed in so close that a person couldn’t walk between them. Leaning my face against the cool of the window beside me, I breathe in diesel fumes and think of Russian dolls, all nested inside of one another. Here I am nested inside the bus, nested inside the boat, floating on the sea.

Soon enough, we are docked and the bus rumbles forth onto winding mountain roads. This is Vanua Levu, Fiji’s northern Island. All variety of greens fly past the window, betraying the depths of forest all around. When the trees break, there is the cerulean sea, laced with light like silver wire.

In Fiji, I am drunk on color. It is a lovely intoxication, unique to the tropics.

DSC_9949 DSC_9953 DSC_0125DSC_0146 DSC_0162

A week has passed now, and the lab is back in Suva. We head home in four days, and are finished with the research component of the expedition. Now it’s just a matter of securing export permits and saying our goodbyes.

The end of June was spent on Vanua Levu, sampling from reefs around the village of Naigigi. Fish were collected from spur and groove habitat and from several shallow patch reefs. The work went well, with 108 species taken from ten sites in country. We took gill tissue for genetic analysis from each individual and fixed the animals in formalin to supplement the ichthyology collections of The American Museum of Natural History.

Back stateside, things will continue to move quickly. There will be an instant in California to say goodbye to the ones I love, and then it’s on to NYC to get these samples processed and catalogued. Oh, and to brave the Manhattan apartment hunt…yikes! Keep you posted.


P.S. Habib Koite and Bamada have been an irresistable fixture this trip. They are crooning through my headphones as I write. Check it: