Tiger Moths Warn Bats: 'Buzz Off, I Taste Lousy'

Scientists have confirmed in nature something seen in the lab, with proof that moths in the wild use acoustic signals to ward off their top predators.

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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recently completed a leg of an ongoing expedition in Bolivia's Madidi National Park, and the organization has released a group of dazzling images of moths found during the trek. Shown here is a member of

Automeris amanda

. We'll list the species name with each photo.

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WCS estimates that there could be as many as 10,000 moth species in Madidi National Park, a site that's considered among the most biologically diverse protected areas on Earth. The expedition, known as Identidad Madidi, has already encountered several new animal species.

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"Moths are often very beautiful and present a diversity of shapes and patterns. In Bolivia, several species are known locally as 'taparaku' and feared because of the belief that when they are found in a house they indicate that someone in that home will die," said the expedition's entomologist, Fernando Guerra Serrudo, associate researcher of the Bolivian Faunal Collection and the Institute of Ecology, in a press release.

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The first leg of the expedition, which concluded in August, also discovered a new frog, three probably new catfish, and a new lizard.

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The moths we're seeing here were found in the savannas and gallery forests of the Apolo region.

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The expedition officially began on June 5th, 2015 and will eventually visit 14 sites over the course of 18 months. Here we see a moth whose species has yet to be identified.

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As the expedition continues, a team of Bolivian scientists will work to add to the existing knowledge of Madidi's birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.

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The scientists' journey will take them along a pathway that will descend more than 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) from the mountains of the High Andes into the tropical Amazonian forests and grasslands of northern Bolivia.

The leg of the expedition currently in progress is exploring three sites in the High Andes, within the Puina valley, between 3,750 meters and 5,250 meters (12,303 feet and 17,224 feet) above sea level.

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If these colorful moths are any indication, it looks like Identidad Madidi will have much more to look forward to, as it continues to uncover creatures never before described.

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