Butterflies and moths are small, but mighty. They have numerous ways of thwarting predators, namely bats. Only recently have lepidopterists (moth and butterfly scientists) understood the defensive sonar-jamming capabilities of some species. In a recent collaboration by scientists at the University of Florida and Boise State University, lepidopterists scoured jungles from Borneo to the Amazon. They observed and collected hawk moths in thirty-two countries. Echolocation experiments and lab experiments used more than 700 moths, and found that nearly half generated ultrasonic sounds with their genitalia. Tiger moths, however, use tymbals, vibrating membranes located on their thorax to produce the sounds. Similar radar jamming is used in human warfare, allowing pilots to be invisible to the enemy. Further study of moths’ ultrasonic sound production should help improve human use of sonar.
Recently, Akito Kawahara at the University of Florida and Boise State University biologist Jesse Barber released a second study reporting that luna moths have learned to use their tails to confuse the sonar calls of bats. Noticing the large diversity in nocturnal moths, Kawahara studied certain species of moths with long tails. Bringing brown bats and several moth species to the Florida Museum, the team set up high-speed infrared cameras and ultrasonic mikes and found those with tails were more likely to survive a bat attack than those without. Bats appear to target the moth’s long tails instead of the head in 55 percent of all interactions, assuring the moth’s survival.
There is still much to learn about the biodiversity of nocturnal species. Yes, moths attracted to your patio lights, or munching caterpillars in the garden can be a nuisance, but we must not discount the small and mighty moth.
Ref: May 2015 study Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lead author Akito Kawahara, assistant curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History flmnh.ufl.edu/mcguire/kawahara; photo credit: Pablo Padron