Discovering a new species is always exciting, particularly one that uses an explosion of a sticky, wool-like material to defend itself.
This unique way of defeating predators involves the moth producing something resembling spider silk, earning it the affectionate nickname of "the spider moth”.
It is also the first time that this explosive tactic has been documented being used by a moth to escape predatory bats, according to the scientist that discovered it.
The behaviour was filmed by the team behind the BBC / PBS co-production series Life in the Air and can be seen in the clip above.
The new moth was discovered near to Cosanga in Equador in August, 2014.
At a first glance, this moth looks very much like Homoeocera albizonata – belonging to the subfamily Arctiinae that includes tiger moths – but differences in its body markings means it is thought to be a new, un-described species.
So far only male spider moths have been observed. They are about 1.5cm (0.5ins) long and have contrasting white patches against dark black colouring. The pouches where the sticky material, or flocculent, is stored are also white.
The moths have translucent wings with a pearlescent-blue shimmer that mimic wasps, probably to stop the moth being hunted by birds during the day.
Nick Dowdy, from Wake Forest University, US, first spotted one of these spider moths while studying the "anti-bat" sounds produced by tiger moths, which essentially "jam" the bats' echolocation and mean the moth can escape.
“I proceeded to pluck it from the wall like I had done so many times before, but the moth had other plans,” he told BBC Earth.
“Within moments my hand was full of sticky white material and I reflexively dropped the moth. I was stunned because even after collecting hundreds of species of tiger moths I had never experienced anything like that.”
I don’t know of any other animals that possess a defence like this one
Previously, a species of Cosmosoma tiger moth had been seen producing flocculent during courtship. And in a species of Homoeocera moth, flocculent was released when the moths bumped into spider webs, coating the web and allowing the moth to escape.
Nick says he has now recorded the first instance of the material being released during interactions with bats and to protect a moth from being eaten.
A year after the initial discovery he witnessed spider moths using it to successfully defend themselves against aerial attacks from bats. Once the flocculent was released the moth was dropped by the bat and escaped unharmed.
It could be a bit like a ninja using a smoke bomb to distract or disorient bats while they make their escape
“I don’t know of any other animals that possess a defence like this one,” he says.
“In some ways it is similar to autotomy – where lizards or invertebrates shed tails and legs when restrained – in that it is a self-defence mechanism which allows the prey to elude or distract a predator while an escape is made.”
Flocculent in other species has been found to contain toxic chemicals and the spider moth also produces ultrasonic anti-bat sounds when attacked. Nick believes this could be the moth warning its enemy of its sticky, noxious defence and is currently testing the flocculent for poisons.
But it is not yet known how the tactic works – whether it is a distraction device or gives off an unpleasant taste or smell.
“It could be a bit like a ninja using a smoke bomb to distract or disorient bats while they make their escape. Or, more likely, it is similar to the moth using mace or pepper spray to coerce the bat into aborting its attack,” he says.
Nick believes that, like other species, the spider moth’s flocculent evolved to perform a courtship function and was later diverted to be used as a “defensive weapon against bat attacks to improve their chances of surviving and ultimately reproducing”.
“Testing this hypothesis requires better knowledge of the genetic relationships between tiger moths and a broader survey of how flocculent is used among species that have it,” he adds.
Who knows, perhaps this moth will surprise me again
It is known that flocculent doesn’t regenerate, meaning once it is all used the moth can’t produce any more and, if the spider moth does use it for courtship, this could harm its ability to reproduce.
In his ongoing studies Nick is trying to find out how each explosion during a bat attack affects a male’s chances of successfully courting a female.
“I’m curious to know how many rounds they’ll be able to go wing-to-wing with bats while maintaining their ability to effectively court females,” he says.
“Who knows, perhaps this moth will surprise me again.”
UK viewers can discover more about how animals have conquered the sky by watching BBC One's Life in the Air on iPlayer.
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