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Creature Feature #9 Marvelous, Much-maligned, Moths!

Flannel Moth, Thoscora acca, Finca Bellavista Community

I think it is my love for fluffy, nocturnal, unpopular flying things that has led to my fascination with moths (as well as bats of course). Moths fall into the same category as rats and mice – an alien species or two that lives with us humans and causes trouble for us, and that makes most humans despise it and all its relatives, regardless of the fact that the vast majority of native species are not only harmless but beneficial.

What is it about moths that is beneficial, you might ask? Well, first of all they are incredibly diverse and abundant. Costa Rica has at least 8,000 species, ranging from tiny, small, medium, large, to very large, providing food for a wide range of animals.Added to that, their lifestyle includes four stages – egg, caterpillar, pupa and adult. A large silkmoth photobombed by a clearwing tiger moth

Each of these stages is a different source of food for birds, anoles, other insects and more. Adult moths are poorly known pollinators of numerous plants. I have recorded over 40 different species of moth visiting milkweed. They get little credit for this, as we, being diurnal, tend not to follow them around at night. Even ardent mothwatchers tend to bring moths to them, using bait (in temperate climes, a sticky mix of fermented fruit and sugar, in tropical areas, salty solutions work well), and UV lights. In tropical countries like Costa Rica, biologists are still trying to figure out how many species there are and where they can be found, so not a lot of effort goes into their behavior. I have found the lower deck at my treehouse, El Fenix, at Finca Bellavista Community in Costa Rica's Southern Zone, to be an excellent place for a moth light.

I have so many pictures of truly amazing looking moths, but I’d like to show (above) several shots of this one species, a silk-moth (in the same family as the Asian moths used in production of real silk), Epia muscosa. I don’t know a common name for this creature, and I was unable to find any information online, no caterpillar shots, nothing about its life history, just that it ranges from Mexico to Brazil. Moths are brilliant at disguising themselves, as you can see here. Sometimes it is hard to know where the wings begin and end.

The habits of caterpillars are slightly better known, because they are the principal consumer stage. Learning about caterpillars was a revelation to me, as it opened my eyes to the value of native plants and trees. Most caterpillars have a specific host or host plant. Over their long evolution, they find only a few plants to be nutritious, and many to be toxic. Monarch Butterflies are a prime example of this, as their caterpillars can only feed on milkweeds. A vast majority of caterpillars feed on a specific tree or herbaceous plant species, and very few have a catholic diet that includes alien plants from the other side of the globe. This matters not only to the caterpillar, but also to numerous songbirds that depend on nice soft, easily digested insects (mainly caterpillars) to feed their nestlings. In North America, when we plant non-native trees like Norway Maples, we are just a small step away from erecting lifeless statues. Nothing eats the leaves and no food is provided for the food chain. Studying moths and caterpillars led me to rip up all the alien plants in my flowerbed and replace them with natives. It may be a bit untidy-looking, but my garden throngs with life.

by Fiona A. Reid

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