Tigers in the Night

Like a psychedelic flutter of love, a unicorn picnic, or a traveling band of kitten actors, butterflies spread happiness wherever they go. But as far as insects in the order Lepidoptera go, butterflies are just the tip of a very big iceberg. And perhaps – dare I say it – what’s hidden underneath is even more amazing.

Lepidoperans – also known as butterflies and moths – are an extremely large and diverse group of insects, with nearly 180,000 described species. “Lepis” means “scale” in latin, and “pteron” means “wing”. At the microscopic level, it’s easy to see how they got those fancy names:

Boloria (Clossiana) euphrosyne

Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly (Boloria euphrosyne), wing close-up. (Photo by Gilles San Martin)

Those scaley-looking things on this butterfly wing are, in fact, scales! More accurately, they are modified hairs, but we call them scales anyway, and lepidopterans are covered in them. These tiny structures overlap slightly like shingles on a very colorful house, and are what give butterflies and moths their diversity of colors and patterns.

sunset moth orange scales

Sunset Moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus), wing scales. (Photo by Macroscopic Solutions)

butterfly scales turquoise

Sunset Moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus), wing scales. (Photo by Macroscopic Solutions)

Many of these colors and patterns are familiar – like the striking orange and black of a monarch, or the iridescent blue of a morpho butterfly lilting through the rainforest. They are familiar because, for the most part, butterflies are up and about when we are.

Although some moths are active during the daytime, the majority of moths are hidden from our normal waking life. But wait until the twillight, or until the stars come out. Check your porch light, or better yet, grab a white sheet, a lamp, and a beer, and you can see the myriad moths that make up the underside of the Lepidoptera iceberg.

Argina argus 2

Mangina argus, subfamily Arctiinae, Nepal. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Mangina argus, from Southeast Asia, is a particularly lovely member of the nightime set. This species has two noteworthy distinctions: 1) It may possibly have the funniest genus name ever. And 2) It has striking pink and silver markings reminiscent of a butterfly. Except that it isn’t. It’s a moth.

Moths make up roughly 80% of all known Lepidoptera (that’s almost 160,000 known species, compared to roughly 17,500 butterflies). Most of them are cryptic, but some of them are colorful. The beauty of moths lies in their incredible diversity. Don’t try to pin them down! (Unless you are starting a moth collection of course…)

Utethesia bella

Utethesia bella, subfamily Arctiinae, Florida. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

There are more species of moth in the United States than birds in the entire world, and more moths in Texas alone than there are species of mammal in the entire world. Take that, pandas!
In terms of charisma, the pandas of the moth world might be those in the subfamily Arctiinae, commonly known as tiger moths. They are an incredibly diverse group, with 11,000 species found all over the world. Like the beautiful day-flying Bella moth pictured above, their playful, often beautifully geometric patterns seem like something out of a surrealist’s dreamworld. Or a Joan Miro painting.
Chionaema spp.

Chionaema sp., subfamily Arctiinae, Assam. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Chionaema perornata

Chionaema perornata, subfamily Arctiinae, Assam. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Chionaema sp. 1

Chionaema sp., subfamily Arctiinae, Assam. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

For potential predators, however, tiger moths look less like a dreamy painting, and more like an unwise snack. Their bright, bold colors – otherwise known as aposematic coloration – advertise that their bodies are infused with poisonous chemicals, such as cardiac glycosides and pyrrolizidine alkaloids, aquired from plants in their environment.
Like other creatures with warning coloration, such as poison dart frogs, coral snakes, Niki Manaj, and flamboyant cuttlefish, tiger moths have a certain dangerous beauty.
Halysidota masoni_2

Halysidota masoni, subfamily Arctiinae, Cuernavaca, Mexico. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Automolis harteri

Automolis harteri, subfamily Arctiinae, Brazil. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

A particularly lovely species is Anaxita decorata. Commonly known as the decorated beauty, it graces Central American evenings like a flying sunset, with bold silver stripes in a wash of vermillion and gold.
Anaxita decorata

Anaxita decorata, subfamily Arctiinae, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Anaxita decorata folded wings

Anaxita decorata, subfamily Arctiinae, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

The bright warning colors of tiger moths may serve as protection from daytime predators. But what happens when the lights go out? And bats get the munchies?

Automolis critheis, subfamily Arctiinae, Panama.

Automolis critheis, subfamily Arctiinae, Panama. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Well, many species of tiger moth have found a way to warn predators at night too – not with sight – but with sound. These species can produce ultrasonic clicks that warn approaching bats that they are distasteful. One species (that is actually tasty), Bertholdia trigona, can produce clicks at such a high rate (up to 4,500 per second), that that it can even jam bat echolocation, resulting in up to tenfold decrease in bat capture efficiency.
Haploa clymene

Haploa clymene, subfamily Arctiinae, Virginia. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Haploa contigua

Haploa contigua, subfamily Arctiinae, Wisconsin. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Whether vibrant like tiger moths or so cryptic they blend into the trees, moths truly are among the most intriguing insects. If you want to explore the hidden netherworld of moths for yourself, you are in luck! They are super easy to observe. All you need to do is go outside at dusk or later and set out a white sheet and a light, then sit back and shout, “come to me my moth-y friends muahahahahaha!” Learning to identify them is fascinating, and with National Moth Week coming up in July (yes you read that right, National Moth Week!), anyone can join in the fun.

Halysidota intensa

Halysidota intensa, subfamily Arctiinae, Peru. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)