Scientists have confirmed in nature something they'd seen previously in a laboratory setting, with proof that tiger moths in the wild indeed use acoustic signaling to tell bats not to eat them.
Wake Forest University biology graduate student Nick Dowdy documented the defense mechanism in field studies that showed two types of tiger moth (Pygarctia roseicapitis and Cisthene martini) using ultrasonic calls to warn off their furry flying predators.
It's National Bat Appreciation Day: Photos
Dowdy used multiple infrared cameras to study bat-moth battles in natural environments in Arizona. Specifically, he wanted to know how sound-producing organs on the moth called tymbals might impact the moths' chances of being eaten.
He found that moths with functional tymbals were about 1.5 times to nearly twice as likely not to be devoured by bats when compared with those moths whose tymbals had been removed.
"The signals are, in essence, a warning to the bats that the moth is unpalatable and potentially harmful if ingested by the bats," Dowdy said in a statement.
VIDEO: The Amazing Link Between Bats And Dolphins
How does the bat "know" what the moth is advertising with its sound?
As Dowdy explained in this 2013 article written during the field studies performed for the current paper, the bats learn to associate the taste of a tiger moth - icky to a bat, thanks to a toxin in the moth – with the sound, even after just one encounter with a lousy meal.
"It's like a little kid with dark chocolate or 99% cocoa," Dowdy explained in the piece. "A child only needs to taste the bitter cocoa once before knowing to never try it again."
VIDEO: Luna Moths Have Mastered The Art Of Confusing Bats
After all, as Dowdy and co-author William Conner noted in their study, tiger moths have had millions of years' worth of experience being eaten by bats. Over time they evolved a defensive sound to broadcast to their chief predator what rotten meals they would be.
Other moths besides the tigers have put their sounds to defensive use. Hawkmoths have been shown to jam bats' echolocation in a bid to stay alive. And luna moths, which have just one week to live in order to get the procreative job done, also have figured out strategies to confuse bats.
Dowdy's findings have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.