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Pūriri moth

While they may emerge any month of the year, now is the peak time to see the elusive pūriri moth. Melody Thomas helps us find them.

Name: Pūriri Moth
Māori name: Pepetuna
Scientific name: Aenetus virescens
Status: Endemic

Description: This impressive moth is New Zealand’s largest, with the wing span of the female growing up to 15cm, and the male up to 10cm. Pūriri moths are usually bright green, but colour and wing pattern are both variable – yellow, red and even albino moths have been recorded.

Photo by Andrew Simpson

Habitat: Pūriri moths are found only in the North Island, and spend most of their lives as caterpillars living inside a variety of host trees, most commonly the pūriri tree for which they are named, and putaputawētā (‘putaputawētā’ means ‘many wetas’ and refers to wetas living in the holes left by pūriri moth larvae). The caterpillars will live inside a host tree for anywhere between eight months and five years – as long as it takes to reach its full size of about 10cm long – after which it pupates. Once the moth has emerged from the tree it lives for just 48 hours – long enough to find a mate and begin the cycle all over again.

Look/Listen: A trained eye can spot the opening of a pūriri moth burrow in a tree trunk but an amateur will find it difficult, as burrows are covered over with a camouflaged web of silk. Abandoned burrows, which lack this camouflaged webbing, are much easier to spot. Kaka love to eat the larvae. You will often see them hanging under branches trying to dig the grubs out and they leave a tell-tale ring of damaged bark on the tree. In the past, male pūriri moths would swarm lights in areas inhabited by people, but with forest clearing this has become less common.

Photo by Andrew Simpson

Tell me a story: I didn’t know how rare a pūriri moth sighting was until I sat down to write this column – because memories of them permeate my childhood. Living in the country near patches of forest, my siblings and I would often find males on the window of the back porch at night, drawn as they were to the light that lesser moths flickered and bickered over. Aside from my brother, who still can’t be in the same room as a moth, we all adored them – probably because Dad did. Any time he found one he’d call us over to admire it, urging us to resist the temptation to stroke their soft, furry backs. One day as I climbed the big old eucalyptus tree in the back garden I found a female, the biggest moth I had ever seen. She was blue-green, perfectly still and so beautiful. Even better, she was all mine. I found a comfortable groove on the smooth, dappled bark of the gum tree, and rested there with her until I was called home to dinner.

First published in Capital issue #64
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