Episode 208 – Atlas Moth: To Kill a Mothingbird

“…and today we’re talking about an insect that wants you to think it floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.”

What would you do if you only had energy from the food you ate when you were a kid? You may move as little as possible, and only when you had to. That’s what the Atlas moth does, since it doesn’t have a mouth designed for eating food. But what does it do when predators show up looking to snack on a gentle, defenseless, insect? Sometimes a bluff goes a long way in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description

  • As a caterpillar, atlas is green with spines that are white and waxy – like the Jimmy Fallon exhibit at madame tussauds
  • Their cocoons look like brown dried leaves – mostly because they are dried leaves
  • Once they become moths (or the imago stage), they have large rust red wings with cream-colored tips that have no other interesting design features whatsoever
  • Their wings also have fang or claw-shaped patterns on each side.
  • Their bodies are also rust-colored with cream-colored stripes.
  • They have long, feathered antennae that look a lot like the sea pen that are very sensitive chemoreceptors

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. 

  1. Moose
  2. Mouse
  3. Mink
  4. Skink

Wingspan

  • 24 cm (9.4 in)
  • How many atlas moths go into the height of the smallest elephant in the world?
  • Hint: The Borneo Pygmy elephant is native to forests of Malaysia. It’s the fourth officially recognized subspecies of Asian elephant. 
  • 7 moths. 1.7 m (5 ft 6 in)

Larva Length

  • 11.5 cm (4.5 in)
  • How many moth larvae go into the height of the tallest living tropical tree?
  • Hint: The tree was found in Borneo via a flyover. In 2019, the tree was climbed and measured. It’s a species of yellow meranti. 
  • 857 larvae. The tree is 98.53 m (323 ft 3.1 in) tall.

Fast Facts

  • Range: South, East, and Southeast Asia from the Stans to Japans
    • They like forests and shrublands
  • Diet:
    • As caterpillars they eat leaves, unsurprisingly. They primarily eat citrus, cinnamon, guava, and evergreen leaves. Though they eat their egg shell first after hatching.
    • As full-blown moths, their diet gets very interesting – and by interesting I mean nonexistent. 
      • They don’t have developed mouthparts so they can’t eat as adults. So they live for just a couple of weeks while they look for a soulmate
      • They live and love off of the fat they stored up as a caterpillar
  • Behavior:
    • When the caterpillar gets to max length (4.5”) they spin a cocoon out of silk and dry leaves and live in it for a month before emerging as adult moths with the world on their shoulders
    • Because of the fact that they can’t eat, they need to conserve energy
      • Each flight can take literal days off of their life
    • So females hang out pretty close to their cocoons and release hormones into the air currents to attract males to them. This way, she can always have enough energy to lay her eggs once they’re fertilized.
  • May have been the inspiration for the legendary monster Mothra
  • The males have antennae that are so sensitive that they can detect a few molecules of female pheromone in the air.

Major Fact: Snake in the Grass

Atlas moths are large insects, but they are delicate and vulnerable to fast moving predators. When flight can’t carry them to safety, they have to rely on something else to avoid becoming lunch.


Atlas moths have extensions on the tips of their forewings that look incredibly like snake heads. I don’t mean it’s sort of like the size and shape of a snake head. There is countershading, a black spot for an eye, and a line for a mouth. 

Of course, having the appearance of a snake is great for smaller predators, but there’s probably several birds and mammals that wouldn’t mind chowing down on a snake either. But the Atlas moth doesn’t just look like any snake. It’s coloration and shape makes it look like a cobra.

Borneo is a tropical paradise and home to many reptiles, including the Malayan spitting cobra. This cobra’s venom is extremely venomous, including neurotoxins and cardio toxins, which means it damages your brain and heart. The toxin has an LD50 in mice of 0.5 micrograms. Most animals stay far away from it.

When the moth is threatened it will land and start fanning it’s wings to appear as snake-like as possible. There’s a picture of them on a tree branch and it straight up looks like a coil of several snakes. 

Ending: So eat your eggs, stay beautiful, and keep your snake hands to yourself like the atlas moth here in LDT.

Episode 178 – Spiny Leaf Insect: Egg Mimicry

“…and today we’re talking about a bug that looks like a deep fried praying mantis. But more on that later.”

The forest is a dangerous place for an egg. They are packed with proteins and fats in order to grow the new creature inside, but those qualities also make them tasty morsels for foragers. Moms of all sizes search high and low for a safe place to deposit her ovum, except for one insect. The spiny leaf insect perches high in a tree and flicks her eggs out onto the forest floor, never to be seen again. But she’s not neglectful, she knows they have all they need to make it in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Description

  • Looks like a combination of sticks and leaves. 
  • Long, narrow body and six long legs with flattened sections to resemble leaves
  • Its abdomen curls up behind it like a scorpion when it’s threatened 
  • It has a teardrop-shaped head with two long antennae sticking out. Its head actually looks a lot like an ant’s

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We do have a Measure Up intro this week from our friend Laura.

Female Length 

  • 5 to 8 inches (20 cm)
  • How many female spiny leaf insects go into the longest ever knitted scarf?
  • Hint: The scarf was made by Helge Johansen in Oslo, Norway in 2013. The scarf was rolled into a tight ball which he unrolled in a sports arena. 
  • 22,467.8 stick insects. The scarf was 4,565.46 m (14,978 ft 6.16 in).

Male Length

  • 11 cm (4.3 inches)
  • How many males go into the diameter of the smallest known star in the universe?
  • Hint: The star is called EBLM J0555-57Ab and it’s in the Milky Way Galaxy with us, about 600 lightyears away. It’s pushing the limits when it comes to small stars. If it were any smaller, there wouldn’t be enough mass putting pressure on the core for the hydrogen fusion process to take place. 
  • 1,058,758,160 male stick insects. The star is about the same size as Saturn which is 72,367 mi.

Fast Facts

  • Diet: Like the humble Koala, SLI mostly just eats Eucalyptus leaves. They can eat other kinds of leaves, but they don’t get as big and have different coloration
  • Behavior: 
    • SLI Cooper has an arsenal of defense mechanisms to hide from and ward off predators.
    • For starters, they have passive camouflage (meaning they don’t have to do anything) – since they, you know, look like sticks. Just hanging out on their favorite Eucalyptus perches keeps them pretty well hidden.
    • They’ll also use active camouflage (meaning they have agency). When the wind blows the tree they’re in, they’ll sway back and forth so that it’s not obvious that they’re the only thing not moving.
    • On top of that, if the camouflage doesn’t work, this stick bug is also covered in thorns so that it can David Hyde Pierce its enemies.
    • When threatened, it will use its spiny rear legs to poke attackers.
    • As nymphs, they look almost exactly like ants to avoid predation
    • Males have wings and are good flyers 

Major Fact: Egg Mimicry 

There are many plants around the world that get benefits from producing tasty seeds. While it seems counter productive, animals that eat seeds disperse them wherever they leave droppings. And the seeds are robust enough to make it through digestion without being destroyed.

This technique helps plants to distribute their offspring far and wide without sapping all of the resources out of a particular area. Some animals could benefit from a similar method. If you’re a stick insect, you don’t want your family to eat all the food in your area and then starve. But how to achieve optimal dispersal.

Certain plants in the leaf insect’s home range drop oval seeds with a tasty white cap. The cap attracts ants that pull the seeds underground to be stored and eaten. The remaining bits of the seed germinate and grow new plants.

The leaf insect and several of its cousins drop eggs that look almost identical to these seeds. It even sports that fat capsule that attracts ants. So stick insects simply sit in a tree and lay an egg that tumbles to the forest floor. Not nesting or hunting for the perfect burrow. They just plop it on the ground. 

The ants do the rest. Scouts will find the egg and pull it into their stores underground. But when the egg reaches the inspection team, someone says, this thing is no seed, it’s breed! Most eggs get ignored by the ants after that. Once they’re underground, they’re safe from other predators, as eggs and once they hatch.

It’s a good thing too because these eggs need a safe place for a long time. They could take up to three years to hatch. 

Researchers thought that maybe these eggs are more like seeds than we thought. Maybe they can even survive gestation like some seeds. So in 2011, scientists feed stick insect eggs to some birds to see what would happen. The birds loved them but the eggs were completely digested. 

Since birds seem to like these eggs and totally destroy them, researchers believe there must be a way that the risk of this egg laying method is covered in nature. Perhaps the ants are more of a crucial part of the stick insect’s life cycle than we thought. 

What About Males?

Now, you’re smart and you might have some good questions about this method. Like what happens when the baby hatches in the middle of an ant nest? Well, hatchlings look a lot like ants. They have thin bodies and legs with a big head. Still, once they hatch, baby stick insects make a break for the nearest tree as soon as possible. 

You may also ask, “What about mating? When do males fertilize these eggs?” Stick insects to produce sexually, but they don’t have to. An unfertilized egg can produce a baby insect no problem. When this happens, the hatchling is always female. If a male happens to find one of these egg drops, a fertilized egg can produce a male or a female.  

Ending: So blend in, keep your thorns sharp, and throw your young into the dens of better parents like the spiny leaf insect here in LDT.

Episode 163 – Dung Beetle: The Bowel Bowler

“…and today we’re talking about a poo poo paladin that rolls with the punches and makes the most out of a smelly situation. But more on that later.” 

One animal’s waste is another animal’s treasure. The dung beetle was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians for its apparent fecal-oriented immortality, but modern discoveries have found new reasons to marvel at this little insect. For those that believe in reincarnation, here is one animal that probably won’t make their top ten list. But sometimes you just need to roll up your sleeves, and some dung, to survive here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 158 – Thorn Bug: Thorin Oaken-eater

“…and today we’re talking about a bug with a prickly personality. But more on that later.” 

The tropics are teaming with life. That means there’s an abundance of resources for you and your brood to enjoy. It also means that there’s plenty of competition looking to eat your food or eat you. Protecting yourself can mean developing one of several tactics. You could focus on defense, you could try to blend in, or you could try to go for both at once. The thorn bug has done just that. But with great tools, the next thing is to perfect their application in real Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Episode 136 – Damselfly: The Damsel Down Under

“And today we’re talking about a damsel down under. But she’s not in distress! She’s thriving! But more on that later…”

Roses are red, the damselfly is blue. They usually fly, but also swim too. The time between hatching and adulthood is often a vulnerable period for insects. Their various stages are often slower and not as well equipped as their ending adult stage. Some insects just have lots of offspring to account for this, while others, like the damselfly, make the most of their instars. It’s all a part of nature’s air and sea show here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.