Moths avoid capture by ‘talking back’ to bats

PACIFIC GROVE, CALIFORNIA—Bats have an uncanny ability to track and eat insects on the fly with incredible accuracy. But some moths make these agile mammals miss their mark. Tiger moths, for example, emit ultrasonic clicks that jam bat radar. Now, scientists have shown that hawk moths (above) and other species have also evolved this behavior. The nocturnal insects—which are toxic to bats—issue an ultrasonic “warning” whenever a bat is near. After a few nibbles, the bat learns to avoid the noxious species altogether. The researchers shot high-speed videos of bat chases in eight countries over 4 years. Their studies found that moths with an intact sound-producing apparatus—typically located at the tip of the genitals—were spared, whereas those silenced by the researchers were readily caught. As the video shows, when the moths hear the bat’s clicks intensifying as it homes in, they emit their own signal, causing the bat to veer off at the last second. It could be that, like the tiger moths, the hawk moths are jamming the bat’s signal. But, because most moth signals are not the right type to interfere with the bat’s, the researchers say it’s more likely that the bat recognizes the signal and avoids the target on its own. Presenting here last week at a meeting of the American Society of Naturalists, the researchers say this signaling ability has evolved three times in hawk moths and about a dozen more times overall among other moths.

(Video credit: Jesse R. Barber)

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