Tag Archives: moth

Moth with the longest tongue of any insect is now a new species

The hawkmoth from Madagascar, whose existence was predicted by Charlies Darwin in the 19th century, has now been officially recognized as a new species, Xanthopan praedicta. It has the longest tongue of any insect, measuring up to 30 centimeters, and is the only can that can reach the bottom of the nectar tubes of the Madagascar’s star orchid.

Image credit: The researchers

The moth was sort of discovered before it was even discovered. Darwin predicted its existence in 1862 when he saw the shape of the Madagascar start orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) and said: “Good heavens, what insect can suck it?”. Two decades later, in 1903, the moth was described by Karl Jordan and Walter Rotschild as a subspecies of the Morgan’s sphinx mox.

But that is no longer the case. David Lees, curator of months at the London’s Natural History Museum, and a group of researchers looked at the Madagascar moth’s genetic and physical characteristics and concluded that it’s not a mere subspecies. In their new study, they argue that the moth is a full species in its own right, Xanthopan praedicta — a discovery that would probably make Darwin happy. 

“Imagine my excitement as I unrolled and measured the proboscis of a male Xanthopan in the Madagascan rainforest, realising that it was probably the global record holder,” Lees said in a statement. “The taxonomic change we now propose finally gives long-deserved recognition, at the species level, to one of the most celebrated of all Malagasy endemics.”

A brand new species

There are hundreds of species of hawkmoths throughout the tropics, but Darwin’s hawkmoth is only found in Madagascar. Its life is closely connected with the plants that live there, including the star orchid. They influence each other’s biology, with the tongue of the moth increasing in length in line with the long nectar tube of the orchid. 

The Madagascar star orchid. The moth’s tongue is actually so long that the moth can’t fly with it extended. Credit: Flickr / Allan Hopkins.

The extraordinary length of the tongue makes the insect is vulnerable to predators such as bats and lemurs. To prevent this, the moths unroll their tongue only when they approach the orchid and roll it back up as soon as they finish up their meal. 

Lees and his team placed about 100 specimens of the moth from Madagascar in a bath of water overnight to soften the tongue, which allowed them to measure its length. Going from 15 to 28.5 centimeters, the tongues were too long to store extended, so the researchers rolled them back in by locating the moth’s head back into the water.

The team found 25 morphological differences between the Madagascan and the African hawkmoth, including significant variations in the shape of the male and female genitalia, wing shape, and color patterns. “The underside of the hawkmoth from Madagascar is pinkish, while the underside of the hawkmoth from Africa is whitish or yellowish’, said Lees.

The tongue length was also different between the two species, with the tongue of the Madagascar moth being 6.6 centimeters longer on average. The researchers also looked at DNA differences and found that the Madagascar moth is at least 7.6% divergent from its African counterpart, which is more than enough to justify the recognition of a new species, the researchers said. 

The study was published in the journal Antenor. 

Microscopic wasps are being used to get rid of moths in a UK historic mansion

Without any visitors amid the pandemic, many of the historic buildings across the United Kingdom have been invaded by hundreds of moths – all chowing down on priceless carpets, tapestries, and art. Now, administrators at one of the affected buildings hope to fight back by deploying a large number of microscopic, parasitic wasps.

The Blickling Hall. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

The pest control technique will be used in a few weeks at Blickling Hall in Norfolk, which is thought to be the birthplace of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn. The property has a long list of treasures, such as a Peter The Great tapestry, given by Russia’s Catherine The Great to Blickling’s owner, and a state bed with the most complete 18th-century examples of a canopy and headcloth.

Blickling is one of the more than 500 historic castles, houses, parks, and monuments regularly maintained by UK National Trust. But the pandemic presented a new challenge for many of them. A recent survey of the properties found that the number of bugs had risen by 11% in 2020 compared with the previous year. Mold outbreaks were also reported due to a lack of activity to drive airflow.

Now, a multi-pronged trial at Blickling will use a microscopic parasitoid wasp, called Trichogramma evanescens, together with specially prepared moth pheromones to target the whole lifecycle of the moth. While both wasps and pheromones have been used separately against moths in the past, this is the first time the combination is tried out in a heritage site, according to the National Trust.

“It’s not like our tapestries are falling off the wall and our things are being munched to bits,” Hilary Jarvis, an assistant national conservator at the National Trust, told The New York Times. “It’s just that no damage is acceptable and it’s heartbreaking when you do find something,” she said. “We know they’re there and we’re not going to be complacent, and I can’t take the risk that we let those moths thrive.”

The wasp chosen for the experiment is a natural enemy of the clothes moth. It searches for moth eggs and lays its own inside, so that a wasp hatches instead of the moth larva. The wasp measures about 0.5 millimeters so it’s barely visible and it’s also not harmful to humans or animals. They will be housed in small dispensers, each with 2,400 wasps, and placed in drawers or open rooms.

Meanwhile, the pheromone tabs will disrupt the mating of adult moths. They will continuously spread female pheromones – chemicals released to attract males of the same species — to confuse male moths. This reduces their chance of finding a female mate. The tabs use electrostatic technology to physically transfer the pheromone onto the bodies of male moths, turning them into portable female pheromone dispensers.

“We are really hoping this pioneering approach will provide a practical and sustainable method that any of our properties can use to deal with serious infestations,” Jarvis told the BBC. “The lockdown has suited our resident bugs. The relative quiet, darkness, and absence of disruption from visitors and staff provided perfect conditions for larvae and adults alike from March onwards.”

The anti-moth campaign will begin early next month and continue through the rest of the year. Once their mission is complete, the wasps will eventually die and disappear into house dust. If the trial significantly reduces the moth population, Jarvis said it could be used in the other properties of the National Trust experiencing the same problem in the United Kingdom.

Buildings and roads around the world have been filling with animals that ventured into places where they couldn’t or wouldn’t before the pandemic. Bats nestled in the spaces between walls of newly empty buildings in the US, goats were seen running in streets in the UK, and coyotes roamed in San Francisco, for example. The UK’s moths are part of the same trend.

Tasty moths try to evade predators — unappetizing moths don’t really bother

A new study suggests that plump, palatable moths will employ evasive maneuvers when under attack by a predator — but the less appealing ones won’t.

A great tiger moth (Arctia caja).

While running away from predators might seem — quite literally, sometimes — a knee-jerk reaction, not all animals behave this way. Further muddying the waters, not all species, even if closely related, behave the same way. So, why is that?

A new study looking into the predator-prey relationship between bats and moths suggests that less appetizing moths are more nonchalant when attacked by bats, whereas more palatable moths tend to employ evasive maneuvers. The work sheds light on the intricacies and complexities of anti-predator strategies in the wild, as well as their associated risks and rewards.

I’m a treat

Moths employ several layers of defense against potential predators. The most straightforward one is simply don’t be seen (by using camouflage) and don’t get caught (performing swoops and dives during a chase). They also employ chemical compounds that make them less appealing to predators and ultrasonic hearing (so they can hear bats on the prowl).

However, we know precious little about how these factors intertwine, and how they vary between different species of moths. A new paper led by Dr. Nicolas Dowdy of the Milwaukee Public Museum and Wake Forest University notest that certain species of tiger moths behave very strangely when attacked by predatory bats — they’re almost entirely unfazed.

In order to understand why, Dowdy and his team collected specimens from five different tiger moth species and released them in an outdoor “flight arena” at night, where wild bats would frequently swoop in to feed. The interactions were recorded using infrared cameras so that the team could track the behavior of each species during a bat attack. In order to quantify how appealing individual moths were, they tracked whether the bats ate them or spat them out.

The team’s hypothesis was that more carefree moths had chemical defenses in place to make them less ‘tasty’ for predators. Because of this, they would have less incentive to engage in evasive behavior when around bats, as their main defense relied on those chemical compounds. On the other hand, moths that lack these chemical armor — making them more ‘delicious’ — need to rely solely on the efficiency of their evasive maneuvers.

The team explains that there is a cost to engaging in anti-predatory behavior, such as evasive flying. A panicked moth might swerve at the last minute and avoid a bat, but that same risky maneuver costs energy, and may even land it in a spider web, or simply takes it away from food or a mate. Moths that do employ chemical defenses, the team believed, take the approach of not dodging bats because, in effect, it’s safer and ‘cheaper’ (energetically-speaking) than trying to fly out of the way.

“Strikingly, we observed that moths with weak or no chemical defenses often dive away to escape bat attacks,” explained Dowdy. “However, moths with more potent chemical defenses are more ‘nonchalant’, performing evasive maneuvers less often.”

By the end of the experiment, the team could reliably predict whether a particular moth would engage in evasive or nonchalant behavior in the arena based on their palatability. They say this mechanism likely functions in other species as well. Another exciting possibility is that the study can be used to reconstruct the behaviors or rare or even extinct species, the team explains.

By measuring levels of chemical defenses in a preserved specimen (i.e. compounds that made it un-tasty), they can reconstruct a species’ palatability. And, based on that, the team can estimate whether the species was active or lazier in its effort to evade predators.

So if you ever find yourself in the savannah staring down a lion, try your best to look deeply unsatisfying. And definitely don’t sprinkle catnip all over you.

The paper “Nonchalant Flight in Tiger Moths (Erebidae: Arctiinae) Is Correlated With Unpalatability” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Deaf moths use acoustic camouflage to escape bats

A new study has found that moths have developed a remarkable type of camouflage — it’s acoustic rather than visual.

This image shows a Madagascar bullseye (Antherina suraka), one of the moth species used in Thomas Neil’s research. Image credits: Thomas Neil.

When we think of camouflage, we picture a visual image — something that blends in with the surroundings. That’s because when most creatures are hiding, they want to be out of sight. But if you were hiding from a bat, for instance, that wouldn’t make much sense: bats don’t “see” with their eyes, but rather with their distinct echolocation ability (think of it like a biological sonar). So to hide from a bat, you’d need a different mechanism.

That’s what some moths figured out a long time ago.

Moths are a mainstay on bats’ menu and, naturally, they’d like to avoid being eaten. So in response, some moths have developed ears that detect the ultrasonic calls of bats, but others have remained deaf — and seemingly helpless. But that’s not quite true: a new study has revealed that these insects developed a type of “stealth coating” that serves as acoustic camouflage to evade hungry bats.

Thomas Neil, from the University of Bristol, UK explains how the fur on a moth’s thorax and wing joints provide acoustic stealth by reducing the echoes of these body parts from bat calls.

“Thoracic fur provides substantial acoustic stealth at all ecologically relevant ultrasonic frequencies,” said Neil, a researcher at Bristol University. “The thorax fur of moths acts as a lightweight porous sound absorber, facilitating acoustic camouflage and offering a significant survival advantage against bats.” Removing the fur from the moth’s thorax increased its detection risk by as much as 38 percent.

Neil used acoustic tomography to quantify echo strength of two deaf moth species subjected to bat predation and two butterfly species that are not. He was able to show that acoustic camouflage appears in both moth species, but is absent in the butterflies.

“We found that the fur on moths was both thicker and denser than that of the butterflies, and these parameters seem to be linked with the absorptive performance of their respective furs,” Neil said. “The thorax fur of the moths was able to absorb up to 85 percent of the impinging sound energy. The maximum absorption we found in butterflies was just 20 percent.”

A rotating 3D image of a moth scale. This type of structure is responsible for the acoustic camouflage. Credits: Thomas Neil.

It’s not clear when this mechanism would have emerged. The hairs on the thorax are basically just elongated scales (as you find on the wing), which emerged around 200 million years ago, long before bats evolved (65 million years ago), Neil told me in an email. It’s very hard to say whether the emergence of bats made the moths become hairier.

But what does seem clear is that bats and moths are in a sort of arms race — as the moths develop their camouflage structure, bats try to overcome it — but it’s not that easy.

“Whereas some bats have shifted the frequency of their calls to try and hide from moths that have developed hearing, shifting the frequency to try and overcome the acoustic camouflage of moths would not work,” Neil told ZME Science.

“This is because the absorption is broadband, with the effect being consistent over the frequencies that we measured (20 -160 kHz, the range which most bats use). One thing bats could do would be to simply emit louder echolocation calls to try and get stronger echoes back from the moth, but we have not done any field testing yet to see if this is the case.”

Further research will try to establish how common this occurrence is, and whether there is a difference between deaf and non-deaf moths. There’s no reason why stealth coating and the ability to hear are mutually exclusive; although deaf moths have more evolutionary pressure on them to evolve this type of ability, it would still be a benefit for them to be able to camouflage acoustically, Neil adds.

“We only tested two moths in this study from the family Saturniidae (Antherina suraka and Callosamia promethea). The study is a sort of a proof of concept, we’ve shown that the fur on the thorax can absorb ultrasound, but the extent to which it is present amongst the many moth species is currently unknown.”

“We’re currently working on quantifying to ‘furriness’ of moths across different families to see if there is any relationship between the different forms of defence against bats, he concludes”.

Neil will describe his work during the Acoustical Society of America’s 176th Meeting.

Rare, delicate fossils show butterflies emerged before flowers did

After an unusual set of events, paleontologists have discovered fossil evidence that Lepidoptera — a group of insects which features butterflies and moths — emerged at least 200 million years ago. This contradicts the idea that flowers drove the evolution of butterflies and moths.

The common jezebel butterfly, Delias eucharis. Image in public domain.

Butterflies and rocks

Boston College Research Professor Paul K. Strother was visiting a colleague in Germany. He was also gathering cores from sedimentary rocks, looking especially for vestiges of freshwater algae, but also pollen, spores, pieces of plants and insect legs — anything that could help him recreate the area’s history. Among these samples, he noticed several rather odd-looking flecks of material.

It wasn’t the first time something like this was observed. Paleontologists typically ignore such features, focusing instead on things like pollen or spores, which offer more consistent information. But the specks were abundant in Strother’s  samples, so he analyzed them more carefully. He dissolved the cores in a solvent, preserving only the organic matter. He was able to isolate the strange features but wasn’t able to identify them. Until luck struck, that is.

After about a year, Strother found himself seated next to Torsten Wappler, a University of Bonn scientist who specializes in extinct insects. As it so often happens when social events bring scientists together, a partnership was struck. Strother showed the images to Wappler, who said that it would be possible to identify them, though it wouldn’t be easy. Identifying microorganisms, especially in unusual samples, typically involves a lot of routine, monotonous work. So again, as it so often happens… the two asked an undergraduate to do the brunt of the work. Timo J. B. van Eldijk was up for the task

“Timo is the guy that did all the work,” Strother remembers.

Examples of the oldest wing and body scales of primitive moths from the Schandelah-1 core photographed with transmitted light (magnification 630x). Credit: Bas van de Schootbrugge, Utrecht University.

As it turned out, the features were scales from the wings of moths and butterflies. Using a light microscope, and later a scanning electron microscope, he concluded that they were the wing scales that give butterflies their characteristic, brightly colored aspect. In total, Timo discovered 70 specimens in the 201-million-year-old sample taken from 300 meters below Earth’s surface. But there was even more.

The real shocker

The investigation revealed that there were two types of scales. The first one was the “primitive” one, with a set of scales that was solid all the way down. But there was another discovery: a different type of scales, which was hollow. This was “the real shocker,” researchers say, as it represents modern Lepidoptera, a group of insects which were thought to have a tight evolutionary history with flowers.

As theory has it, this group evolved their proboscises (long and mobile sucking mouthparts) as a response to flowering plants. Plants had nectar, and the insects wanted that nectar, so they adapted in order to better reach it. But the theory, it seems, is wrong. According to the fossil record, plants didn’t develop flowers until 130 million years ago, and this sample is 201 million years old, from the Jurassic.

“The consensus has been that insects followed flowers,” said Strother, a co-author of the paper. “But that would be 50 million years later than what the wings were saying. It was odd to say the least, that there would be butterflies before there were flowers.”

Example of a living representative of a primitive moth belonging to moths that bear a proboscid adapted for sucking up fluids, including nectar. Size of the scale bar is 1 cm. Credit: Hossein Rajaei, Museum für Naturkunde.

During the Jurassic, the dominant group of plants was the gymnosperms, a group which includes conifers such as pine trees — not what you’d expect to find butterflies around. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why insects would have developed proboscises without flowers. The best theory is that they were trying to drink pollen from conifer cones. It could also be that the flower fossil record is missing, or that these elongated mouthparts had another purpose entirely.

Still, it’s not without precedent for one biological part to emerge for one purpose only to later change its purpose completely. The rocks date from a period right around the Triassic–Jurassic extinction event, when numerous creatures went extinct. Butterflies might have taken advantage of this and diversified, filling up all the ecological niches they could. The new research suggests that butterflies are survivors.

Butterflies are survivors. Credits: Momentmal / Pixabay.

Science at its finest

It will take more cores, more samples, and more grunt work before the story of the early Lepidoptera is solved, but this is a great example of classic science: starting not with a plan, but rather with a curiosity. Researchers were intrigued by what they found, and after one thing led to the other, they might have changed the evolutive history of an important group of insects. In my view, modern science needs much more of this.

“This is the old-fashioned science of discovery,” said Strother. “We’re looking at this microscopic world of things that lived hundreds of millions of years ago and we don’t know what they are. The challenge is: can we figure out what they are? Part of it is piecing together the tree of life, or the evolution of organisms through time. It is more like a puzzle or a mystery.”

Journal Reference: Timo J. B. van Eldijk et al. A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701568.

Moth eyes lead to glare-less phone screens

Sometimes, nature provides the most unexpected inspiration. In this case, researchers studied moth eyes to develop better phone screens.

A moth eye in close zoom. Notice the dimples — they do all the magic, as you’ll see if you read on. Image via Pixabay.

Nothing spells “First world problem” like phone glare. Sure, you have this mind-blowing device which can access the sum of human knowledge through the Internet, it can connect you to people across the Earth in seconds, but it just sucks when there’s too much light. The reason glare happens is due to the light reflecting off the screen — it greatly reduces contrast and washes out the image, making it very difficult to see.

In order to overcome this issue (which of course, would be worth a lot of money to the tech market), researchers took inspiration from the eye of moths and came up with a protective film that reduces the surface reflection to 0.23 percent, compared to the iPhone’s surface reflection of 4.4 percent. In relatable terms, this makes glared screens 4 times easier to read (I’m really not sure how this maths works out). Researchers led by Shin-Tson Wu of the College of Optics and Photonics, University of Central Florida (CREOL), report on their new antireflection coating in Optica, The Optical Society’s journal for high impact research.

“Using our flexible anti-reflection film on smartphones and tablets will make the screen bright and sharp, even when viewed outside,” said Wu. “In addition to exhibiting low reflection, our nature-inspired film is also scratch resistant and self-cleaning, which would protect touch screens from dust and fingerprints.”

Moths are nocturnal creatures. Their eyes are covered in anti-reflective nanostructures which ensure that light doesn’t reflect off of them — this would give off their position to predators. Just think about those photos where someone’s eyes came out as red. It’s just like that except much worse, because you get eaten. Researchers took that approach and applied it to their coating.

It’s also a much more elegant solution than today’s existing technology. All the magic is done by tiny uniform dimples, each about 100 nanometers in diameter, which interact with all wavelengths of light (some anti-glare technologies exist on the market, but they only affect some wavelengths). Most screens today use a sensor to detect strong light and then boost luminosity to improve readability — this consumes more battery twice, first for the sensor and then for the increased brightness.

Of course, this isn’t as simple as adding a few dimples. Researchers had to develop a fabrication technique that uses self-assembled nanospheres to form a precise template and then apply it to a feature. It’s an impressively simple solution, but it’s one which requires absolute precision.

“Although it is known that moth-eye structures can reduce surface reflection, it is relatively difficult to fabricate an antireflection film with this nanostructure that is large enough to use on a mobile phone or tablet,” said Guanjan Tan, first author of the paper. “Because the structures are so small, a high-resolution and high-precision fabrication technique is necessary.”

The film also had another, unexpected advantage: it keeps the screen much cleaner.

“Some commercial anti-reflection films can be contaminated by fingerprints or dust,” Wu says. “In our film, we have a special treatment that has a self-cleaning effect,” due to the film’s ability to repel moisture left behind by fingerprints.

It’s also quite flexible, meaning it could be applied in a number of foldable technologies. The only problem is making sure that it survives longer periods of use, which scientists have not accomplished by this point. So it might not pop up on our devices today or tomorrow, but we should definitely keep an eye out for it in the future.

Also, it’s another stunning invention inspired by nature. As NPR reminds us, Velcro was inspired by a burdock plant that stuck to a dog’s fur after a hunt and sticky gecko feet are a surprising inspiration source for NASA. Just look at the world around you. You never know what you’ll find.

Journal Reference: G. Tan, J.-H. Lee, Y.-H. Lan, M.-K. Wei, L.-H. Peng, I.-C. Cheng, S.-T. Wu, “Broadband Antireflection Film with Moth-eye-like Structure for Flexible Display Applications,” Optica (2017). DOI: 10.1364/OPTICA.4.000678.

Darwin was right: females like males who are good listeners

Darwin’s predictions prove correct once more.

The gum-leaf skeletoniser moth. Image credits: Peter Marriott.

Evolution isn’t a simple theory, one which you can outright explain to someone in a few minutes. It’s a complex sum of processes, with many aspects and facets that we still don’t completely understand. Still, it’s impressive to see just how right Charles Darwin was when he first put forth this theory. In 1871, he suggested that females (which often have the privilege of choosing mates, unlike males) will drive the evolution of mating signals in males. Basically, males which are better at picking up the females’ signals (the better “listeners”) will be preferred and have a higher chance of passing their genes — so males will evolve to be better listeners.

Professor Mark Elgar, from the University of Melbourne’s School of Biosciences says that this idea has been largely overlooked until now, but holds true — at least in the moths he studied.

“Darwin also proposed that sexual selection can favour males who are better at detecting and responding to signals from females, including chemical signals like pheromones. So males with sensory structures that can better detect female signals may have the edge in finding them in order to mate and pass on their genes.”

He showed that male moths with larger antennae can better detect low quantities of female feromones used for signaling. Working with PhD student Tamara Johnson and Dr Matthew Symonds, Elgar set up traps with either one or two female moths, recording the number and characteristics of the male moths. They found that traps with two females attracted males of all antenna sizes — the signal was strong enough to attract everybody. But traps with only one female, with a lower amount of pheromones, tended to attract males with longer antennae. This was especially true for the younger females

Our data are consistent with Darwin’s 1871 prediction that sexual selection favours exaggerated sensory receptor structures like antennae,” says Dr Symonds. “As evolutionary biologists, it’s very rewarding to be able to support a long-standing idea, originally floated by Darwin, that hasn’t attracted much attention,” he says.

A female Uraba lugens moth in calling posture. Image credits: University of Melbourne.

The team also suggests that females adjust their pheromone signaling to maximize the chance of meeting a particular kind of males — the ones with longer antennae.

“Our data suggest that by releasing smaller amounts of pheromone, the female increases the likelihood of attracting males with longer antennae. These males may be better mates because producing and maintaining a large sensory structure is costly and possible for higher quality males only. Those male qualities may be passed onto her offspring,” says Professor Elgar.

The takeaway is simple: females (especially younger ones) like good listeners. Write that down, guys.

Journal Reference: Tamara L. Johnson, Matthew R. E. Symonds, Mark A. Elgar — Sexual selection on receptor organ traits: younger females attract males with longer antennae.

Newly discovered moth species features Trump hairdo

A tiny moth species has been named Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, becoming one of the first species to bear the name of the US president elect. The species was named thusly not so much to honor Trump, but rather to raise awareness about the need for species conservation.

Neopalpa donaldtrumpi side by side with Donald Trump. Original images courtesy of Vazrick Nazari.

The species was discovered by Vazrick Nazari, a biologist and researcher from Ottawa, Canada, in southern California.

“The new species is named in honor of Donald J. Trump,” Nazari wrote in a review of the species. “The reason for this choice of name is to bring wider public attention to the need to continue protecting fragile habitats in the U.S. that still contain many undescribed species. The specific epithet is selected because of the resemblance of the scales… of the moth to Mr. Trump’s hairstyle.”

The moth has a wingspan of less than one centimeter, featuring orange-yellow and brown wings, and bright yellow scales on its head.

Image credits: Vazrick Nazari.

It’s not the first time a species has been named after someone famous – in fact, it happens quite a lot. A wasp species was recently named after the singer Shakira, a dinosaur after the poet Georgia O’Keeffe, and a flower fly after Bill Gates.

“Like geographic features (cities, mountains, rivers, etc.), species are sometimes named after prominent people. This species was named after Bill Gates in recognition of his great contributions to the science of Dipterology. Bill’s fly is only found in the high montane cloud forests of Costa Rica,” reads a text fragment explaining the association between Bill Gates’ name and an insect in Costa Rica.

However, species are generally named after people who have a positive impact — and on this end, Trump doesn’t fare too good. Not only is he not linked to biodiversity in any positive way, but his comments on climate change (ie claiming it isn’t happening) have made him extremely unpopular with scientists and conservationists. But hey, a beetle was named after Hitler, so why not?

At the end of the day, the naming is a bit unorthodox and will likely draw criticism but it may just as well achieve its goal of raising awareness. After all, we are talking about it, aren’t we?

EDIT: The article erroneously stated that this was the first species named after Donald Trump. A sea urchin from Texas had been named after Donald Trump in November 2016.

Hawk moths jam the bat sonar signals by rubbing their genitals

It’s a dog eat dog out there, and any advantage you can get is more than welcome – as strange as it may be. According to a research published in Biology Letters on 3 July, Hawk moths create an ultrasonic noise that could be used to scare off an attacking bat and to jam the bat’s sonar.

Hawk moth. Picture source.

Hawk moth. Picture source.

Radar jamming is by now a very common technique in human warfare, but not really often seen in the animal world. It’s well known that bets rely on ultrasonic echolocation to get around and find prey – but their prey has adapted as well. Several species of moths have developed ways of hearing this echolocation and, as this study shows – even counter it.

Researchers at Boise State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History pre-recorded the bats’ attack sequence, and then studied what Hawk moths did when they heard this sound. What they did was quite surprising: they created an ultrasonic response by rubbing their genitals against their abdomens; both male and female members did this, albeit using different techniques. They also created the sound when touched. Three species have exhibited this behaviour: Cechenena lineosa, Theretra boisduvalii and Theretra nessus.

“The […] anti-bat ultrasound production in hawkmoths […] might play a similar role as in tiger moths — to startle, warn of chemical defense or jam biosonar,” write the authors, Jesse Barber and Akito Kawahara.

Interestingly enough, moths only exhibited this behaviour near the end of the bat attack sequence, suggesting that this is probably their last line of defense – a last minute “pocket strategy” against their predators.

Scientific article.

Fossilized moths reveal interesting methods of camouflage

Fossilized moth wings, that are blue after death were yellow-green during lifetime, suggesting a colorful and creative method of camouflage.

Camouflage and warning

The moths lived in a difficult period, some 47 million years ago, in a period where life was still trying to fill the gaps left behind by the major dinosaur extinction; they used their colors to blend in with leaves while nesting, according to Maria McNamara, a paleobiologist and postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. But considering that today, green butterflies contain extremely toxic cyanide, to warn off predators, so the moths might have used this too.

“They were probably using the color for the same kind of function,” McNamara declared, “to hide themselves when they were resting, but as a warning signal when they were feeding.”

Structural colors

McNamara and her colleagues are looking for what is called structural colors: not those produced by pigments, but those produced by the organism’s tissues. They were ‘browsing’ through some fossils found in Germany, when they came across several moth species, all belonging to a group called lepidopterans, which also includes butterflies. The fossils were preserved extremely well – up to the point where researchers can study the tiny, featherlike scales on the ancient moths’ wings that held the key to their structural color.

“When you look at these fossils today in air, their wings look a blue-green color,” McNamara said. “But we were able to work out that originally, their wings were more of a yellow-green color.”

A small step for humans, a big leap for moths

This might not seem like a major find, but it offers an significant amount about them, and it also puts into context a relevant part of an ecosystem. For starters, the fact that they had colors at all reveals that they were daytime creatures, unlike most moths today, which hang around nighttime. The color wasn’t iridescent, which means that it looked absolutely the same from any angle (unlike that of some beetles), which indicates that it was probably used for camouflage, as well as warning.

“You might be able to reconstruct colors of other butterfly and fossil moths that just look brown today,” she said. “It’s part of the whole process of working out what animals have used colors for in the past.”

The results will be published this Tuesday in PLoS Biology

Can a butterfly (or moth) remember life as a catterpillar?

butterflyAs you know (or at least should know), butterflies and moths are known for their metamorphosis from catterpillars to their adult form. This radical change involves not just a change of look, but it also includes changes in lifestyle, diet, sensorial impulses and many many other differences. So it would seem very probable that the buttefly has no memory whatsoever of its life in the previous form.

Well, as strange as it would seem, scientists at Georgetown University found out that tobacco hornworm caterpillars could be trained to avoid particular odors delivered in association with a mild shock; and when it emerged from that form, it still avoided the odors, showing larval memory. This is in fact the first study to prove beyond a doubt that associative memory can survive metamorphosis in Lepidoptera.

“The intriguing idea that a caterpillar’s experiences can persist in the adult butterfly or moth captures the imagination, as it challenges a broadly-held view of metamorphosis — that the larva essentially turns to soup and its components are entirely rebuilt as a butterfly,” says senior author Martha Weiss, an associate professor of Biology at Georgetown University.

“Scientists have been interested in whether memory can survive metamorphosis for over a hundred years,” says first author Doug Blackiston.

While most studies around insect memory have focused on social insects, such as honeybees and ants, this particular laboratory focuses on butterflies, praying mantids, and mud-dauber wasps. This sounds quite interesting, but really useless. Well, it’s not! It can actually help scientists identify the signals that are required to direct a cell to develop into a neuron and determining how the complex human central nervous system evolved.