Since setting foot outside of the airport, I have been barraged with new sights, new sounds, and perhaps most interestingly to me, new species of creatures with which I am completely unfamiliar. A glimpse into my childhood, and well, adulthood too, would show hours of me curiously pouring through field-guides and encyclopedias, memorizing Latin names, researching countless genera and species, and capturing writhing snakes and rapidly scuttling spiders to present to my admittedly horrified family to answer the most important question: “What is this?” Growing up in New Hampshire was particularly conducive to this hobby, as I could be in the mountains, at the beach, by a river, or in the forest within an hour.
In Oaxaca, the biodiversity is no less impressive, but I struggle to find the resources to identify the many hummingbirds, spiders, flowers, and trees which surround me. When I can get an identification, it’s often in either a local indigenous language or Spanish, and my curiosity remains unsatisfied. Often, it’s annoying and unimportant. When I witness a hummingbird steal a spider’s web to use to build its nest, or I observe the large lizard basking in the sun at Monte Alban, or the pine trees standing tall and strong at an impressive 3,300 meters (more than double the tree lines I am accustomed to in my small White Mountains), I am amazed and curious. I’d like to be able to identify more than the mosquitoes, whom I kill remorselessly and sin discriminación.
Sometimes, the answer is a bit more pressing. Hastily googling “what type of scorpion is that?!” leads to some pretty alarming and often inaccurate details about the scorpions both local to Oaxaca and throughout Mexico. I wanted to carry the creature to the safety of outside, but upon alerting my host family, I regret to inform you this magnificent creature is, well, muerto. I still don’t know what species it was, although my host family doesn’t seem to think it’s actually dangerous, only gross and frightening.
Today, however, marks score one for the biologists back home. Amanda found a moth about the size of my hand, and I was extremely curious to find out just what species of moth it was. Googling was of little help. A local, however, linked
me to the Wikipedia page I so desperately sought, and it turns out the majestic creature is a “black witch” moth (Ascalapha odorata), a species known throughout Latin America as an omen of death. In Mexico, it goes by several names, including “Mariposa de la muerte,” or “butterfly of death” in Spanish and “Miquipapalotl,” which is Nahuatl for “death moth.” In Peru, it is called “Taparaco Malagüero,” or “bad news moth” in the language Quechua. In Mayan, hilariously, it is called “X-mahan-nail,” which essentially translates to “May I borrow your house?” as they are frequently found inside of people’s houses. In Jamaica and the Caribbean, they are called “duppy bats;” “duppy” meaning “malevolent spirit” in Jamaican English. It is also known as Papillon-devil, the Mourning moth, the Sorrow moth, and La Sorcière Noire.
The species was identified by the father of taxonomy himself, Carl von Linné, who is best known for creating the modern binomial nomenclature system we use today. It is amongst the largest lepidopterans in North America, and it is rather dark in coloration. Some accounts suggest that the species’ nocturnal nature resulted in alarm when the species presented itself during the day. The species was popularized in Silence of the Lambs, a signature larva left in the mouth of the victims.
In reality, the species is large and tranquil. The specimen I saw seemed content to sleep in the corner. In a world unknowable species in Oaxaca, I am happy to have known this one. While many people do not share my enthusiasm, I’m frankly pretty pumped.
-Keely E. FitzGerald
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