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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: opodiphthera eucalypti (1)

Bug of the Month - Emperor Gum Moth

by Patrick
Publish date
4 January 2013
Comments (27)

The apparent decline of the Emperor Gum Moth (EGM), Opodiphthera eucalypti, around Victoria has been a hot topic of debate amongst entomologists and other EGM fans in the last few years.

Emperor Gum Moth A newly-emerged male Emperor Gum Moth.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan

The decline is anecdotal and as yet there is no hard evidence, but theories abound. Many people contact us noting that they don’t see EGM caterpillars anymore, as they did when climbing trees as a kid. Which prompts a question in return: "When did you last climb a tree?"

Emperor Gum Moth Male Emperor Gum Moths have enormous feathery antennae used to detect the presence of females.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

Another possibility is the demise of the introduced Peppercorn Tree (Schinus molle) in Victoria. Originally from the Peruvian Andes, Peppercorns were planted in every Victorian primary school and many parks from the 1880s to the early 1900s. EGM caterpillars, although feeding naturally on eucalypts, will also consume Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and Liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua), as well as Peppercorns. Victorians who went to primary school up until the 1970s would be very familiar with EGM caterpillars feeding on Peppercorns, but the trees have gradually died out or been removed until now there are very few left. Peppercorns are now considered an environmental weed.

Children planting trees State school children planting peppercorn trees in Carlton Gardens, just outside the now Melbourne Museum, on Arbor day, 1905.
Source: Reproduced from Carlton in DPCD report by Lovell Chen

Emperor Gum Moth The colour of adult Emperor Gum Moths varies considerably throughout their range.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan

Another strong possibility is the intrinsic variation in insect populations. Many species undergo booms and busts, appearing in vast numbers one year then apparently disappearing for several years afterwards, sometimes for a decade or more. These fluctuations are usually climate related, with each species requiring an exact combination of factors (such as a mild winter and a wet summer) in a particular order to afford them a boom year. Perhaps the last couple of decades have not produced the right combination for EGMs, and they’re just waiting for their number to come up.

European Wasp The dreaded European Wasp. Workers tear EGM caterpillars off trees and cut them into small pieces before transporting them back to the nest.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan

One of the most popular theories is attack by European Wasps (Vespula germanica) on EGM caterpillars. Caterpillars are a favoured prey of European Wasps, and they can do enormous damage when present in large numbers. However, somewhat ironically, after reaching plague proportions in the 1980s and 90s, wasp populations have dropped dramatically in the last 15 years or so, again for no discernible reason other than a possible combination of environmental factors.

Emperor Gum Moth caterpillar feeding An Emperor Gum Moth caterpillar feeding on Eucalyptus species.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan

In the end, any decline of EGMs probably comes down to habitat loss. The number of host gum trees has steadily reduced in urban areas in particular, but also in suburban areas and even rural towns. If fewer trees are available, there will naturally be fewer caterpillars. So if you’re missing these iconic caterpillars, the best strategy is to plant a gum tree.

Young caterpillars Young EGM caterpillars look very different to older caterpillars, but their presence is a possible sign of a healthy local environment.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan

But these theories are, at this stage, pure speculation. EGMs are still around, if you know where to look. A Museum Victoria Bioscan at Wilson’s Promontory in 2011 attracted hundreds of EGM adults (as well as the closely related Helena Gum Moth, Opodiphthera helena) to light traps at night. And just last month, a dozen EGM caterpillars were on display in the Forest Gallery at Melbourne Museum. Plans are underway to assess the extent of the EGM decline in Victoria, so stay tuned for further developments.

Further reading:

Coupar, P. & Coupar, M., 1992, Flying Colours – Common Caterpillars, Butterflies and Moths of South-Eastern Australia, NSW University Press, 119pp.

Common, I.F.B., 1990, Moths of Australia, Melbourne University Press, 535pp.

Zborowski, P. & Edwards, T., 2007, A Guide to Australian Moths, CSIRO Publishing, 214pp.

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