Walter Grehan with an image of the ‘Phassodes walteri’ ghost moth that his son named after him. Photo: Charles Anderson.

Ghost moth named after Walter


When Walter Grehan turned 80, his son John sent him a watch. When Walter turned 90, he surprised him with a moth.

“I suppose it is a bit unusual,” says the Ernest Rutherford Retirement Village resident. “But John has always been into insects since he was knee high to a grasshopper.”

In their regular correspondence by mail – Walter in Nelson, John in New York state – John revealed that there was a moth that he was studying that had been collected in the Solomon Islands.

He also told Walter that he had been able to name it and thought it might make a good birthday present.

John called the moth “Phassodes walteri”.

“I don’t even know how to pronounce it,” jokes Walter. But still, he says, it’s a nice gesture.

From his base in New York, John says he studied for his PhD in zoology at Victoria University, which included a seven-year study on New Zealand’s own puriri moth.

He moved to the United States in 1988 to do field research in forest ecology and then worked at a museum at Penn State and then a museum in Buffalo, New York, where he started a concerted research programme on the evolution of ghost moths – a primitive family of moths that include the puriri.

He isn’t sure why he is so fascinated with the species.

“Hard to say really. It must be genetic. Always been a bit of a night owl.”

John says he wanted to name the moth after his father to thank him.

“For the sacrifices made by him and my mother in supporting my early, single-minded interest in insects. Even though my interest in insects as a hobby and then career path was a bit foreign to their experience, they always encouraged and supported my endeavours.”

John says Walter had a “practical and consistent approach” to various projects during his life.

“This provided me with a sense of focused determination and disciplined imagination that I have applied to my research work.” Walter says he is happy to still correspond with John through the mail and happier now that a photo of the moth in question in his possession.

That image will now go on the wall of his apartment where he keeps all his things that are dear to him.

There are the photos of his old “cobbers” from the days he was a French polisher in Melbourne, there’s an image of the ship his ancestors came over on from Bristol in 1845.

There are black and white photos of his German ancestors and photos of his wife and his children. Now he can add the Phassodes walteri to his wall.