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Seven bizarre moths to celebrate National Moth Week | Smithsonian Voices | National Museum of Natural History


Seven bizarre moths to celebrate National Moth Week

There are approximately 160,000 species of moths and butterflies in the world, each with unique characteristics. (Smithsonian)

Moths often don’t get the love they deserve, but they are fascinating and important creatures. Not only do they serve as food for many animals, including bats and birds, but they also pollinate plants. Moths are incredibly diverse – some have striking colors, while others are more subdued. Some have caterpillars that feed on leaves, while others feed on animal droppings. In honor of our winged friends, here are some of the coolest and most unusual moths from the Smithsonian collections.

Bella butterfly

Preserved bella butterfly on white background

Bella butterflies, or Utetheisa ornatrix, only live for about three weeks, but females mate an average of four to five times in their short lives. (Smithsonian)

The bright colors of the bella butterfly serve as a warning to predators: DO NOT EAT. Caterpillars feed on host plants of the genus Crotalaire, sometimes called a rattle or rattlepod, which contain a large amount of an alkaloid toxin. This is then concentrated in the caterpillars, making them unpleasant to most predators. Toxins are in such high demand that caterpillars are known to cannibalize eggs, larvae or pupae of the same species to supplement their own supply of toxins. These moths are active during the day, so you may be able to spot them if you live in North or South America.


Sloth in the fur of a three-toed sloth and "Lazy" in black

Choloepi cryptoses live in the fur of three-toed sloths. (Smithsonian)

the Choloepi cryptoses is one of the many species of moths that live exclusively in the fur of sloths. When a sloth descends on the forest floor to defecate, adult female butterflies fly away and lay their eggs in its feces. The larvae feed on the poo and, once adults, return to the canopy to find a new home for the sloths.

Scientists believe that this relationship also benefits the lazy. Mites increase the amount of nitrogen found in the sloth’s fur, which helps algae grow on it. Sloths eat algae and also use it for camouflage. Scientists have found up to 120 moths living on a single sloth.

Lunar butterfly

Preserved green and yellow luna butterfly on white background

Actias luna, or lunar butterflies, are active at night and are very attracted to light (Smithsonian)

With long tail wing tails, a bright green color, a fuzzy white body, and comb-shaped antennae, luna butterflies look like something straight out of a fairy tale. But their hind wings are more than beautiful – they also help protect moths by confusing echolocation from hunting bats. Luna moth caterpillars also have their own method of defense. They make a clicking noise and vomit to deter predators. Adult luna butterflies only live for about a week and do not eat at all! Their mouthparts are not functional, so they only live long enough to reproduce. These butterflies are only found in North America.

Night butterfly

Brown and beige vampire butterfly on a white background

Vampire butterflies are named for their ability to suck blood from mammals. (Smithsonian)

Of all the weird butterflies, the Calyptra thalictri could be the most nightmarish. These butterflies feed on fruit, but males can use their tongues to pierce the skin and suck blood from vertebrates. This gives them sodium to pass on to the females during mating and gives their offspring a nutritional boost. These butterflies are native to Europe and Asia.

Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica

Yellow and brown butterfly on white background

Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica drinking bird tears, but other species of moths have been observed drinking tears from animals such as elephants, horses and mules. (Smithsonian)

The vampire butterfly is not the only species of butterfly that sucks fluids from other animals. the Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica, native to Madagascar, has been observed inserting its barbed proboscis into the eyelids of sleeping birds and drinking their tears. Presumably, they do this to get nutrients like sodium that are lacking in their normal diet. There is no indication that this bothers the birds – they stay asleep while the butterflies drink.

Morgan’s sphinx

Morgan's sphinx preserved on white background

Morgan’s sphinx moth has a proboscis that can be around 12 inches long. (Smithsonian)

Morgan’s sphinx butterfly uses its extremely long proboscis to obtain nectar from the orchid’s equally long spur Angraecum sesquipédale. Charles Darwin received a package of these orchids from Madagascar while he was studying insect pollination and predicted that there must be a butterfly on the island with a trunk long enough to pollinate them. Naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace agreed and further suggested that the pollinator would be a sphinx butterfly. Almost 40 years later, scientists identified specimens of X. Morgani in Madagascar, confirming both predictions.

Sphinx skull

Preserved Sphinx skull on white background

Skull sphinx pupae were placed in the throats of the victims in “The Silence of the Lambs”. The butterfly is featured on the movie poster. (Smithsonian)

You may already be familiar with the Death’s Head Sphinx, thanks to “Silence of the Lambs”. It was the moth that Buffalo Bill was using as a calling card. This ultimately helped Clarice identify her after seeing one flying around her house. The butterfly has a distinct skull-shaped pattern on its thorax which has helped it gain notoriety.

But the infamous pattern isn’t the only unusual trait about them. These butterflies use chemical camouflage to mimic the scent of bees and enter hives undetected. They use their sturdy mouthparts to pierce wax cells and eat honey. They also produce a unique squealing noise as a defense mechanism. These butterflies live in Africa and Europe.

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Marguerite Osborne

Margaret Osborne is an intern in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. His journalism was featured in the Sag Harbor Express and aired on WSHU public radio. Margaret is an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University, majoring in Journalism and German Language and Literature and minor in Environmental Studies. She is spending her final semester in Washington, DC and will graduate in May.

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