The Giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, is the largest butterfly in the United States, with some specimens of this species measuring almost six inches in wingspan. Common in the Southeastern United States and southeastern Arizona, the butterfly has been gradually extending its range westward across the Mojave Desert. Established in Yuma, Arizona, from about the 1960s, P. cresphontes then crossed the desert of Imperial County and colonized Brawley, California. During the following years it crossed over the mountains of San Diego County, and became established in the City of San Diego, an event documented in the newspaper of that city.
Over the years, the Giant swallowtail gained a foothold in areas farther up the coast, and finally entered Los Angeles County, where it became established by the year 2000. First collected in Ventura in 2008, this year it was finally sighted (and captured once) in Hope Ranch, on the Mesa and in Goleta Valley during September and October. The specimen pictured is the first for Santa Barbara. Welcome to the neighborhood!
Meanwhile, an unexpected “Giant” species of moth showed up on Paulette Ferrari’s front lawn on Bath Street. The Giant sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus), a bulky moth, measuring over five and a half inches in wingspan, was spotted floundering in the grass one day during late September. The moth was submitted to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (SBMNH), where it was identified as the Giant sphinx, the largest sphinx moth and one of the largest moths in North America. This is the first record of the moth for the state of California.
The Giant sphinx moth is known from much of Central and South America and is a permanent resident in Florida. However, they are strong fliers and are known to regularly stray north to Texas and Arizona, and have even been reported as far north as Chicago. It is unlikely that the species is here to stay in Santa Barbara.
Both specimens have been deposited in the insect collection of the SBMNH. The museum’s research collection contains hundreds of thousands of preserved insect specimens, primarily from California, that serve to document the current and historical occurrences of our species.
As for the Giant swallowtail, with our abundance of orange trees, a preferred food plant for the caterpillars, and bougainvillea bushes, a favorite nectar source for the adults, our city provides an excellent environment for its long-term survival, and it will no doubt be here for many years to come.
About the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Founded in 1916, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History reconnects more than 190,000 people each year (including their 5,700 members) to nature indoors and outdoors. Uniquely nestled in nature, the Museum is located along Mission Creek in the Mission Canyon area. The Museum has ten indoor exhibit halls focusing on regional natural history including astronomy, birds, insects, geology, mammals, marine life, paleontology, plant life, and the Chumash Indians. Also, the Museum is home to the only full-dome planetarium on the Central Coast, a research library, and the John & Peggy Maximus Art Gallery.
The Museum’s outdoor exhibit experiences include a nature trail, the Chumash Sukinanik’oy Garden, The Museum Backyard & Nature Club House, the Butterfly Pavilion, and a real 74-foot Blue Whale skeleton. The Museum’s outdoor nature experience continues down to the Pacific Ocean at its Sea Center located on the historic Stearns Wharf. The Sea Center offers nearly 90,000 visitors a window to ocean life in the Santa Barbara Channel through its interactive exhibits and close-up, hands-on encounters with sea creatures.
Beyond exhibitions, the Museum offers science education programs for adults and children, preserves a collection of more than three million specimens and artifacts, and maintains ongoing scientific research. The Museum’s mission is to inspire a thirst for discovery and a passion for the natural world. For more information about the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, please visit www.sbnature.org