For nearly 65 million years, bats and tiger moths have been locked in an aerial arms race: Bats echolocate to detect and capture tiger moths, and tiger moths evade them with flight maneuvers and their own ultrasonic sounds. Scientists have long wondered why certain species emit these high-frequency clicks that sound like rapid squeaks from a creaky floorboard. Does the sound jam bat sonar or does it warn bats that the moths are toxic? To find out, scientists collected two types of tiger moths: red-headed moths (pictured above) and Martin’s lichen moths. They then removed the soundmaking organs from some of the insects. In a grassy field in Arizona they set up infrared video cameras, ultrasonic microphones, and ultraviolet lights, the last of which they used to attract bats. In darkness, they released one tiger moth at a time and recorded the moth-bat interactions. They found that the moths rarely produced ultrasonic clicks fast enough to jam bat sonar. They also discovered that without sound organs, 64% of the red-headed moths and 94% of the Martin’s lichen moths were captured and spit out. Together, these findings reported late last month in PLOS ONE suggest that instead of jamming sonar like some tiger moths, these species act tough, flexing their soundmaking organs to warn predators of their toxin.
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