Stalking The Shape Shifters

Wednesday class offers insight into the secret world of butterflies, moths

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Tom Brossart/Roundup

The caterpillars of swallow-tail butterflies feed almost exclusively on wild cherry and ash trees so that the winged form can pollinate an array of Rim Country flowers.

Jim Mouw lays traps for shape shifters.

He stalks the creatures of the night.

Then he drives home a slender stake and hides them away.

And if you’re interested, he can show you how to do it — just show up on Wednesday.

That’s when the former math teacher turned night stalker can reveal the absorbing, secret lives of butterflies and moths, which haunt the canyons, stream sides and glad meadows of Rim Country in greater diversity than almost anyplace else in the country.

The math teacher-turned butterfly collector and moth farmer has been creeping through streamside thickets, checking the underside of leaves and setting up lamp-lit sheets for years in Payson, in the process collecting thousands of butterflies and moths representing hundreds of different species.

Now Mouw will host a Payson Recreation Department class at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at the recreation office in Green Valley Park to share his fluttering passion with Rim residents.

He’s got a lot of ground to cover, since only the borderlands of Texas and Southeastern Arizona can boast as many different butterfly and moth species as Rim Country, where the rapid change of elevation from Roosevelt Lake to the top of the Mogollon Rim creates a rich intersection of habitats.

Scientists have identified 700 species of butterflies and a mind-boggling 13,000 species of moths — and perhaps half of them live in Arizona.

Besides dazzling people with their powdered flutter of beauty, moths and butterflies provide a unique glimpse of some of nature’s most intricate and wondrous hat tricks.

The night-needing moths and the day-adoring butterflies both have a caterpillar stage in which they often develop deep relationships with certain plants. The caterpillars then enter into a cocoon or chrysalis stage in which their bodies all but dissolve and reform and then become an adult. Finally, they emerge into a winged stage — in which they play a crucial role in the survival of plants — sometimes the very plants that sustain their caterpillars.

That complexity linked to the seemingly senseless beauty of many of these feathered wonders has fascinated Mouw for most of his life.

Consider the brilliant yellow, swallow-tailed butterfly, Arizona’s official state butterfly, no less. The eggs hatch in the spring, producing a green caterpillar adorned with a spot that looks like an enormous, crazed eye — evidently intended to scare off hungry birds. Mouw figures birds might mistake the eyespot for the head of a snake.

The caterpillars feed mostly on wild cherry and ash trees, including bushes scattered around Rumsey Park. Like most caterpillars, they’ve evolved digestive juices especially good at dealing with the defensive chemicals produced by certain plants.

Every week or so, the engorged caterpillar will spin a silken pad to attach itself to the underside of a leaf, split its own skin open, then crawl out just a little bit larger. After five such molts, they spin a chrysalis where they can spend the winter as their bodies completely change form.

In a drought, they might remain in that hideout for several years — but normally they emerge in the spring in their new, gaudy winged form. They waft out into the world looking for flowers from which they can sip nectar to gather the strength to lay eggs and renew the cycle.

Moths have an equally dramatic life cycle, lived out mostly in the dark. Sticking to the dark protects them from vision-depended birds, but makes moths a prime source for bats — the fluttering Lords of the night. Many moth species have actually evolved radar detectors, which enable them to undertake violent evasive maneuvers.

In the spring and summer, Mouw hosts little impromptu moth parties, with a sheet stretched in front of an electric light. Hundreds — sometimes thousands — of moths will fly against the sheet.

“It’s fun, you never know what comes to the light. Some nights you’ll get thousands of huge moths coming — some nights we’ve had the big river toads, they’ll come and sit at the bottom of the sheet —they’ll just have a feast. Tarantula will come in and take its share.”

In the meantime, Mouw raises moths. Including the common, local pamina. The blue-green, 3.5-inch-long caterpillars feed only on oak leaves. When they’re small, they feed in great, foul-tasting platoons that can sting flesh with barbs and poison. All this chomping and struggle leads inevitably to the cocoon for the handful of survivors of the summer slaughter. The moths emerge in the spring, without so much as a mouth to feed with. They last about a week, during which time they mate, lay eggs and die.

That makes for a sad, but curiously compelling fate for this powdered, shape-shifting creature of the night — and just one more reason Mauw has been hooked on them all these years.

Now, he’s spreading his addiction to the unwary.

Best be there Wednesday — to find out what goes bump in the night.

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