Flutterly Fascinating

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2009

Last revision: Dec. 14, 2010

A moth fluttering through the air on a summer night suddenly hears the calls of a bat in pursuit of a meal. The moth vibrates tiny membranes on its thorax in response. These are meant to momentarily confuse the bat’s interpretation of the echoes its calls return, allowing the moth to escape. When the bat continues to close in, the moth stops flying, closes its wings and plummets to the earth in a final attempt to elude the predator.

Beautiful and interesting animals are living out their lives in your backyard. Christened with exotic names such as green marvel, cynical quaker and promiscuous angle, Missouri’s moths are just outside your home almost every summer night, mating, laying eggs, feeding and escaping from predators.

Although almost everyone likes butterflies, most people are lukewarm when it comes to moths. That’s because people generally tend to think of moths as dull and butterflies as colorful. However some moths, such as painted lichen moth, grapevine epimenis, and banded tiger moth, outshine many butterflies.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you are looking at a moth or a butterfly. Some of the distinctions between the two groups are visible only under a microscope. It’s true, however, that butterflies are generally more active during the day, while many moths are nocturnal. Butterflies also hold their wings either out to the side or folded together over their bodies, while most moth wings are angled like an A-frame roof.

In North America, the most reliable way to distinguish moths from butterflies is to look at the antennae. Butterflies have thin antennae with clubs at the tips, while moth antennae are either threadlike, narrowed at the tip or feathered.

Feathered antennae are generally larger on males and play an important function in reproduction. Those feathery antennae are sensitive to the chemicals in pheromones released by females to attract potential mates.

Crickets use sounds to find mates in the dark; moths accomplish the same thing with scents. Females release pheromones from abdominal glands at a specific time. This “calling time” can help prevent moths with similar pheromone chemicals from finding the wrong mate.

Females select nights with a light breeze to disperse the pheromones, but not so windy that the pheromone plume is distorted. Male moths that have been marked and released have been caught in traps baited with female pheromones more than 20 miles away.

Staying Alive

Staying alive long

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