Just as Superman disguised himself as shy, quiet Clark Kent, Butterflies and Moths disguise and camouflage themselves to be inconspicuous to predators.
Most of us who love butterfly gardening, already know that Monarch Butterflies use their brightly colored wings to indicate their toxicity to predators. This is a natural defense that Monarchs share with many other insects, reptiles and amphibians. Brightly colored pigments, scales or shells means take caution or don’t eat this, in the animal kingdom. But did you know that the non poisonous Viceroy Butterfly mimics the coloration of Monarch Butterflies to appear toxic and ward off predators. Mimicry, transparency, camouflage and disguise are some natural ways butterflies and moths protect themselves from predators, such as birds, spiders, lizards and small mammals.
Above, the distinctive eyespots on the Buckeye Butterfly ward off predators.
Mimicry, also known as masquerading, in regards to butterflies and moths is the act of imitating another creature to confuse predators. Just as Viceroy butterflies mimic the coloration of Monarch butterflies, other butterflies have large “eyes” on their wings to make predators believe they are looking in the face of a larger creature; perhaps another predators. Butterflies and moths employ mimicry in their caterpillar and butterfly phases. Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillars have two large, false eyes and crawl in a serpentine manner to mimic snakes. The Owl butterfly has large eyes on it’s hind wings to make it look like an owl to it’s predators, which are mostly lizards that would not want to chance an encounter with a hungry owl.
The wings of butterflies and moths are comprised of transparent membranes which are covered in tiny scales. Moth wings generally have more scales than butterflies, which gives them their fuzzy appearance. Because most moths are nocturnal, they do not rely on the warmth of the sun like butterflies. Instead, moth’s extra scales help keep them warm and regulate their body temperature. Wing scales also produce the color, pattern and texture of butterfly and moth wings. This color and texture is determined by a gene known as cortex. The functions of the wing color, patterns and textures are: to attract mates, ward off predators, and to camouflage or disguise moths and butterflies from predators.
Above, the Beautiful Wood Nymph moth resembles a bird dropping to evade predators.
The gene cortex allows butterflies and moths to evolve and adapt to their surroundings. During the industrial revolution in England, pollution became such a problem that the trees in and around industrial cities became covered in black soot and lichens and mosses on these trees were choked out. With the aid of cortex, the Peppered Moths, which like their name suggests had mottled gray and black coloration to help conceal them as they rested on tree bark, suddenly all turned black. This speedy color evolution allowed the Peppered Moth to rest on soot covered trees, while remaining hidden to predators.
Some butterflies and moths, however use a lack of wing scales and cortex to evade predators. Without scales, the wing membranes are transparent. Butterflies and moths that use transparency as a camouflage, are able to blend in with whatever surface they are on. For example, if a transparent butterfly is sunning itself on a flower, a passing predator would see the flower through the transparent wings and not notice the butterfly. Some butterflies and moths that use transparency to foil predators are Hummingbird Clearwing Moths, Glass Wings, Blushing Phantoms, Pellucid Hawk Moths and Transparent Burnet Moths.
Camouflage and disguise are the most common ways in which butterflies and moths naturally protect themselves from predators. Camouflage is a butterfly or moths ability to blend in to certain locations or backgrounds because of the color, pattern or texture of their wings. Camouflaged butterflies and moths use concealing coloration: coloration that blends in with a background, or disruptive coloration: patterns like stripes or spots that disrupt the outline of the moth or butterfly to confuse predators. The white and green-yellow mottling on the underwings of Orange Tip Butterflies is concealing coloration that allows them to blend in with the flowers they feed on. Fiery skippers have orange and yellow mottling that allows them to blend in with their preferred nectar sources. Orache moths use their gray and green mottled concealing coloration to blend in with moss covered tree bark. Grayling, Question Mark and Comma butterflies also use concealing coloration on their underwings to blend in with tree bark and leaf litter. While Angle Shades Moths have seemingly random stripes that disrupt it’s outline so that it can rest on trees, unnoticed by predators.
Disguise is perhaps the most interesting way in which butterflies and moths protect themselves from predators. Some butterflies and moths have the appearance of other natural objects such as twigs, leaves or even bird poop which allows them hide in plain sight. Brimstone butterflies have green, leaf-shaped wings, complete with texture that looks like leaf veining. The underwings of Oakleaf Butterflies look exactly like a brown dead leaf, while the uppersides of the Skeletonized Leafwing Butterfly wings make it look like dead leaves. Buff-tip moths are naturally disguised to look exactly like a broken twig when they are in their resting position. Proving that Mother Nature has a sense of humor, Chinese Character and Pearly Wood Nymph Moths are naturally disguised to look like bird poop when they are at rest. Disguise during the resting position is especially important for nocturnal moths that sleep during the day.
Camouflage and disguise are not only used by butterflies and moths in their adult stages, they are also used in larval (caterpillar) and chrysalis stages to protect against predators. The Viceroy Butterfly, for example, not only masquerades as a toxic Monarch Butterfly in it’s adult stage, but caterpillars and chrysalises have natural disguises that make them look like bird poop. The caterpillars of Pearly Wood Nymph Moths disguise them as a group of Asian Lady Beetles or Lady Bugs. Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillars also look like bird poop to make them unappealing to predators and their chrysalises are disguised as twigs growing out of their tree hosts. Anise Swallowtail Butterflies, on the other hand, form in chrysalises that look like green leaves, while Owl, Red Admiral and Painted Lady Butterflies all have chrysalises that are disguised as dried, curled, dead leaves. The Giant Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly forms in chrysalises that look like spent blooms. Even the Monarch, who as a butterfly relies on it’s bright coloration to deter predators, starts it’s life as light green striped caterpillars that blend in with milkweed leaves, then form green chrysalises that also go almost unseen amongst milkweed foliage.
Above, is the caterpillar of the Wavy-lined Emerald moth, also known as the Camouflaged Looper because of its habit of fixing small leaves and flower petals to its body to avoid detection.
Like the Peppered Moth during the Industrial Revolution, Mother Nature has made butterflies and moths adaptable to environmental changes. Yet, their populations continue to dwindle because of loss of habitat and food sources. You can help native butterflies and moths by providing safe, undisturbed natural habitats for them and growing native nectar plants.
Additional images by Melody Rose