7 reasons moths are amazing

Why do butterflies get all the love?

By Alisson Clark/UF News

Everybody likes butterflies, but who gets excited about moths?

Akito Kawahara does, and he has some compelling reasons why moths deserve your admiration and respect.

Moths don't get the glory butterflies enjoy because most of them are active at night, when it’s harder to admire or even spot them, says Kawahara, associate curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. And some of their coolest superpowers, like using sonar to avoid bats, are invisible and inaudible to us. If you’re willing to give them a chance, though, moths will amaze you.

For National Moth Week (July 21-29), Kawahara shared some remarkable moth facts and some surprising ways moths impact our lives.

1. They're just as beautiful as butterflies

Some of the most spectacular moths are tiny, so their colors and patterns fly under the radar, Kawahara says. Even the larger ones tend to be unappreciated. Check out the bella moth above (Florida Museum photo by Andrei Sourakov), or these Atlas moths at the museum’s Butterfly Rainforest:

Incidentally, not one but two moths have been described as looking like Donald Trump’s hair. This one bears the resemblance while it's a caterpillar.

This one, in the adult stage.

2. They can live in an underwater burrito

Yes, you read that right. As a postdoctoral fellow, Kawahara studied fancy-cased caterpillars in Hawaii. As adults, these moths have a groovy '70s-inspired fringe, but as caterpillars, they're even trippier: They build houses for themselves shaped like tacos, burritos and ice cream cones. Some species of the case-building genus can even live underwater for weeks without coming up for air, making them the first known amphibious insects.

That’s amazing enough, but other moth caterpillars can live in the tiny space inside a leaf — a space so small you probably didn’t think it was a space at all. Here's National Geographic Explorer and UF doctoral student Chris Johns on these microscopic leaf miners:

Still others use their flat butts to seal up the door of the house they build out of poop. Here's more on that from Ryan St Laurent, another student studying moths in Kawahara's lab:

3. We barely know anything about them

The number of known moth species — 140,000 — dwarfs the 18,500 known butterfly species, and science is hardly scratching the surface where moths are concerned.

"There could be 500,000 or even a million species. No one really knows," Kawahara says.

In some parts of the tropics, up to 90 percent of moths may be unknown to science.

4. You already love moths, because BUTTERFLIES ARE ACTUALLY MOTHS (!!?!)

Yes, most butterflies fly during the day and most moths at night, but that's not true across the board. It may be shocking, but there’s no real distinction between butterflies and moths, Kawahara says.

"Butterflies are just day-flying moths. But when I explain that to people, they say, 'What are you talking about?’"

The moth misconception is so pervasive that Kawahara and a co-author are calling an upcoming book “Moths and Butterflies,” even though that’s tantamount to calling a book “Birds and Chickens” or “Meals and Lunch.”

“I’d like to just call it ‘Moths,’ but if I did, maybe no one would buy it,” he jokes. At least, he’s mostly joking.

5. The very hungry caterpillar is hungry for MEAT

You probably picture caterpillars as cute little leaf-munchers like the one in the storybook, but some are carnivorous. One meat-loving moth baby uses silk threads to trap snails. Others catch flies right out of the air.

6. They've been waging war against bats for millennia

Bats love to eat moths, so over millions of years, moths have developed some pretty cool defenses. Kawahara and colleagues discovered that the fabulous long tails on some moths’ wings help them evade hungry bats by tricking them into striking part of the moth that the moth can live without. Luna moths’ long tails spin as they fly, which muddles bats’ sonar signals. Tiger moths take it up a notch, imitating bat blasts with ultrasound signals of their own to avoid becoming dinner. It gets much weirder, though: Hawkmoths block bats by scratching their genital scales against their abdomens. Why do we need to know this? The implications of findings like these go beyond what hawkmoths do with their nethers. Understanding how animals use (and defeat) sonar can inform how people use it, too, Kawahara says.

7. Sonar is just one reason it's important to study moths

Moth knowledge has plenty of uses for humankind. You probably know that silk comes from moths (specifically, from cocoons made of caterpillar spit that are painstakingly unspooled and spun into thread. Luxurious!). But you might not have realized that moth caterpillar cells are used to make the flu vaccine. There's also promising research suggesting that caterpillars might be able to break down plastic, although Kawahara would like to see more work on that before he endorses it as a miracle cure for pollution. Another reason moths are worth studying is their sensitivity to environmental changes, which can alert us to conditions that might impact people in the future, he says.

So during National Moth Week, step outside and check out a moth or two, Kawahara says. If you can't sleep one night, take a look at your porch light and see what’s swooping around it. Or if you want to try forest bathing but find it too aimless, scan the ground at your local park for some interesting caterpillars. When you spot something, snap a photo and send it in to one of the many citizen-science efforts tracking moths’ whereabouts worldwide. And finally, if you learn to appreciate moths, share your appreciation with a kid.

"Most of us who are considered experts had someone who helped us when we were younger," Kawahara said. For him, it was his dad, who bought him a butterfly net and took him on collecting trips.

How did Kawahara thank him? He named a moth after him, of course.