July 3, 2013

Some Reflections on Mothapalooza

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Bill and I attended the first ever Mothapalooza event in mid-June at Shawnee State Park in southern Ohio. If you haven't been to the park in a while, give it a try. The lodge has recently been completely renovated and is quite nice, and it is located in the most biologically diverse part of the state.

An event like this is worthwhile because of the excellent speakers, fine field trips, outstanding leaders, good food, interesting vendors, and especially the chance to meet like-minded folks for whom looking at every plant and critter is a pleasure! 

Friday we visited Adams Lake State Park in the morning and then did a wonderful Friday afternoon field trip with the Mothapalooza folks to remote parts of Shawnee State Forest. Among many other things, we saw some interesting day-flying moths such as this very small Buck's Plume Moth,

a baby box turtle,

and a few birds such as this Summer Tanager:

Why are all these people staring at a puddle?

Well, because lots of butterflies were "puddling" here including this gorgeous zebra swallowtail

and this American Lady.

These butterflies are all males, and they are getting minerals from the mud that are necessary for reproduction.

The Saturday afternoon field trip was equally interesting. In fact, our first location was so good that we didn't have time to go to all the other spots the leaders had chosen!

We found these awesome pipevine swallowtail caterpillars,

scads of Great Spangled Fritillaries enjoying nectar from native plants, in this case butterfly weed, a type of milkweed, 

and more day-flying moths such as this Saw-wing.

After a presentations on both Friday and Saturday nights we had a choice of "mothing" stations to visit. These were locations where some serious moth aficionados had set up lights, both UV and white light, against sheets to attract and observe whatever moths were in the area. 

Here are some examples of what came in:

And here is a gorgeous Regal Moth:

Looking back, here are some of the more interesting facts that we learned about moths:
  • Moth coloration and behavior is all about evading predators. This constant game of catch-up between predator and prey is much of what drives evolutionary change and this process is readily observed when studying moths.
  • Male moths are attracted to females because of the pheromones the females produce. Since most moths are nocturnal, appearance is not as important.
  • There are approximately 20 species of moths for every species of butterfly. Butterflies have evolved from moths, and in fact moth experts refer to butterflies as "day-flying moths". Butterfly antennae are different from those of moths, and most form a chrysalis when they pupate as opposed to the cocoon that moths create from silk and sometimes other materials such as leaves. Otherwise, they are pretty much alike.
  • Moths are a critical part of the ecosystem. Many are significant pollinators, and moth caterpillars provide food to a host of birds and arthropods. Adult moths feed bats and nocturnal birds such as nighthawks.
  • The coloration and patterns on moth and butterfly wings come from powder-like scales. The scales and resulting color patterns function in several ways depending on the species: to frighten predators away, to warn predators about toxicity, to provide camouflage, and in some cases to attract mates. In some species the scales themselves contain toxic chemicals.
  • If the scales are removed, the insects can fly just fine. So why do they need scales rather than some other approach to pigmentation? Some researchers hypothesize that the powdery scales, which flake off very easily, keep moths and butterflies from getting caught in sticky spider webs. This was maybe the coolest thing I learned all weekend! We usually think of birds as the main predators of moths and butterflies, but apparently spiders are quite significant too.
National Moth Week is coming soon, July 20-28, so watch for activities in your area. Some folks are more into this than others, but any level of interest is welcome!


  1. I think if you asked the average person to compare moths and butterflies, you'd get an answer like "moths are plain" and "butterflies are beautiful." Not so as your photos demonstrate!

  2. Beautiful post and beautiful moths. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Was Googling for some caterpillar pics at Blendon Woods Metropark and found your imperial caterpillar picture. Figured I'd poke around your blog since I was here. Did not expect to find a picture of myself. Mothapalooza was a great time.

  4. Hi Kevin--good to hear from you! Yes we greatly enjoyed Mothapolooza, meeting you and hearing about your mothing activities. My moth consciousness has definitely been raised!