Today’s factismal: Some moths have long tails that “jam” bat’s sonar.
Ask any biologist and she will tell you that all of life is in an arms race. Things that eat are constantly developing new and better ways to nibble on tasty things and things that don’t want to get eaten are constantly trying to find new and better ways of avoiding the dinner invitation. And perhaps no better example of this exists than the world of moths and butterflies because these lovely lepidoptera (“scaly wings”) are both eaters and eatees.
We all know about the Monarch butterfly and its ingenious use of the milkweed plant. By nibbling on milkweed leaves as a caterpillar, Monarchs make themselves inedible as adults and advertise that fact with their bright red and black coloring. But they are hardly the only example in the fluttering world. Consider the tongue of most butterflies and moths. So long that it can’t even fit back in their mouth, the tongue is a hollow, flexible drinking straw. They’ve developed these over-sized tonsil ticklers not because they want to give the world’s biggest Bronx cheer but because they were fighting with plants. You see, many butterflies and moths get their food as adults from the nectar hidden in plant flowers. The plants put out the nectar to attract these critters with the hope that some of the plant pollen will get carried to the next flower where it will start the next generation of flora. But pollen is heavy for a critter as small as a butterfly, so they developed long tongues to allow them to sip from the flower without getting near the pollen. The plants respond by growing longer flowers and before you know it you’ve got the butterfly tongue we know and laugh at.
And lepidoptera don’t just nibble on things. They also get nibbled on. Some, like the Monarch, adapt by eating poisonous plants. Other adapt by flying at night when there are fewer critters out there eating little fluttering things. But that’s when bats feed and bats like butterflies and moths just fine, thank you very much. So some moths have adapted to the attack of bats by developing long tails. These tails flutter as the moth flies in the night, which then scatters the bat’s sonar; instead of hearing a sharp “ping!” indicating where the moth is, they hear a fuzzy “pong” that gives them less of an idea where the bug might be flying.
If you’d like to learn more about the butterflies and moths of the world and maybe help with a citizen science project that aims to get a picture of every single one, then why not flit over to Butterflies and Moths of North America?