Bats view the world in echoes, timing the reflections of their own ultrasonic calls to navigate and hunt. This biological sonar, or echolocation, has made them masters of the night sky; it’s so sensitive that some species take moths and other insects on the wing, while others pluck spiders from their webs without entangling themselves in silk. But with such an efficient technology, it was only a matter of time before their quarry developed countermeasures.
Some insects gained ears; others simply rely on outmanoeuvring their attackers. But one group, the tiger moths, play bats at their own game. When attacked, they unleash ultrasonic clicks of their own to jam the calls of their pursuers, disrupting their ability to accurately gauge distances or even feigning echoes off non-existent objects.
This technique has been suggested ever since moths were first discovered to click several decades ago, but Aaron Corcoran from Wake Forest University has found the first conclusive evidence that moths actually do this. They pitted moths of the species Bertholdia trigon) against four big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) against each other over the course of three days, in gladiatorial arenas surveyed by high-speed infrared cameras and ultrasonic microphones.
When the three bats were pitted against moths in flight, they only managed to snag B.trigona on around one in five attempts. Even if the moths were tethered onto a stump, the bats still fumbled their approach at the last minute. A related moth species that doesn’t click fared much worse and almost always succumbed to the bats.
Impressionists are a mainstay of British comedy, with the likes of Rory Bremner and Alistair MacGowan uncannily mimicking the voices of celebrities and politicians. Now, biologists have found that tiger moths impersonate each other too, and they do so to avoid the jaws of bats.
Some creatures like starlings and lyrebirds are accomplished impersonators but until now, we only had anecdotal evidence that animals mimic each others’ sounds for defence. Some harmless droneflies may sound like stinging honeybees, while burrowing owls deter predators from their burrows by mimicking the distinctive warning noises of deadly rattlesnakes.
In tiger moths, Jesse Barber and William Conner from Wake Forest University, North Carolina, have found the first hard evidence of acoustic mimicry in animals. Tiger moths are hunted by bats, which use ultrasonic clicks – echolocation – to home in for the kill.
Moths are tuned into the sounds of these clicks and respond with their own ultrasonic sounds, created by vibrating special membranes called ‘tymbals’ on their abdomens (see a Quicktime video of the tymbals in action). The sounds are multi-purpose – they may startle the bats, or jam their transmissions. But according to Barber and Conner, they also carry a message – they say “Don’t eat me, I won’t taste very nice.”