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12 Facts About the Death's-Head Hawkmoth

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Celebrate National Moth Week with a few facts about one of the most striking insects in the animal kingdom: The Death's-Head Hawkmoth.

1. The Death's-Head Hawkmoth gets its name from the skull-like mark on its thorax.

2. Given its unusual markings, it's probably not surprising that people once considered it a bad omen. In 1840, entomologist Moses Harris wrote that "It is regarded not as the creation of a benevolent being, but the device of evil spirits—spirits enemies to man—conceived and fabricated in the dark, and the very shining of its eyes is thought to represent the fiery element whence it is supposed to have proceeded. Flying into their apartments in the evening at times it extinguishes the light; foretelling war, pestilence, hunger, death to man and beast."

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3. There are actually three species in the genus Acherontia, which takes its name from the Acheron, the River of Pain in the underworld: A. styx, found in Asia, is named after the boundary river of Hades; A. lachesis, found in India and other parts of Asia, is named for the fate who measures the thread of life; and the best known of the bunch, A. atropos, found from Great Britain (at least in the warmer months) to South Africa, takes its name from the Fate that cuts the thread of life.

4. The caterpillars come in three colors—bright yellow, bright green, or a mottled brown—and have a tail horn that changes color and curves as the larvae mature. They feed on more than 100 plants, including nightshade, and grow up to 5 inches long. You don’t want to mess with them: When threatened, they click their mandibles and try to bite their attacker!

5. The caterpillars molt four times before it’s time to pupate, at which point they cover themselves with a saliva-like secretion and go to ground. When they find a suitable spot, they burrow 5 to 15 inches below the surface and shed their skins.

6. The moths are big: The smallest, A. styx, has a wingspan between 3 and 5.11 inches; A. lachesis, the largest, has a wingspan of 4 to 5.19 inches; and A. atropos has a wingspan of 3.5 to 5.11 inches.

7. When disturbed, the moths squeak. The sound is produced by an internal flap, called the epipharynx, which sits at the base of the proboscis.

8. The Acherontia moths raid the hives of honey bees. In the 1836 book The Natural History of British Moths, Sphinxes, &c, James Duncan wondered how they did it, writing, “This insect is in the habit of entering the hives of the common domestic bee, where it takes up its abode for a time, and regales itself on the honey. … It is not easy to understand how a creature without offensive weapons, and unprotected by any hard covering, can either resist or survive the attacks of so many armed assailants.”

Some scientists believed it might have been the moth’s squeaking—which sounds like the noises a queen bee makes—while others thought that the mark on the thorax resembled a worker bee’s face. Recently research shows that the moths excrete an odor that contains the same compounds present in honeybee odor, which might mask their presence from the bees.

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9. A. atropos is the fastest moth in the world; it can fly at speeds up to 30mph! The insects can also hover like hummingbirds as they drink nectar from flowers.

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10. The moth has popped up in literature: In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the titular vampire sends the moths to his thrall, Renfeld. Thomas Hardy wrote about them in The Return of the Native, and John Keats mentioned them in his poem “Ode to Melancholy.” And in Thomas Harris’s book Silence of the Lambs, the killer places the pupae of the Acherontia styx in his victims throats. (In the movie adaptation, the filmmakers either used the pupae of the tobacco hornworm or A. atropos.)

11. Two large moths were discovered in the bedchamber of King George III in 1801, during his second major incident of madness. One of the moths, collected by the monarch’s physician, Robert Darling Willis, is at the University of Cambridge. There’s no evidence that the King actually saw the moths.

12. Don’t want to call it a death’s-head? In Dutch, they're called Doodshoofdvlinder; in French, le sphinx à tête de mort; in German, Totenkopfschwärmer; in Spanish, cabeza de muerto; and in Swedish, Dödskallesvärmare.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

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Unfazed by Haters, This Bug-Loving 8-Year-Old Helped Author a Scientific Paper
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Sophia Spencer's passion for insects felt perfectly normal to her and her mom. But some kids in the Canadian second-grader's class disagreed, and they didn't make an effort to hide their disgust from Sophia. "She is often teased at school by her peers because she will proudly display her current bug friend on her shoulder," her mom Nicole wrote in a letter that was widely shared on Twitter. But instead of letting bullies discourage her, Sophia held on to her love of all things creepy-crawly. That dedication has since paid off: At just 8 years old, Sophia is now the co-author of a scientific paper published in an entomology journal.

According to Science Alert, the story started when Nicole Spencer wrote to the Entomological Society of Canada (ESC) in search of a mentor to support her daughter in pursuing her hobby. "She has asked me for over a year if this is a job she can do one day, exploring and learning more about bugs and insects. I have told her that of course she could; however, I am at a loss on how to continue to encourage her in this field of science," she wrote. She then went on to ask if there were any entomologists willing to talk with Sophia about bugs and how to turn her passion into a career, writing, "I want her to know from an expert that she is not weird or strange (what kids call her) for loving bugs and insects."

The response was overwhelmingly positive. ESC shared Nicole Spencer's message on Twitter, calling on entomologists to reach out so they could be connected with Sophia. Bug-studying scientists replied with offers of books, supplies, and email addresses for sharing advice. Entomologist Jessica L Ware wrote, "she can contact my lab anytime! We are happy to send her papers, nets, whatever will keep her entomology passion going!" Another reply came from ecology professor Julia Koricheva: "I've been that girl, became an entomologist & still proudly wear bugs on my shoulder."

The tweet was so successful that it's become the subject of its own scientific publication. The paper, titled "Engaging for a Good Cause: Sophia's Story and Why #BugsR4Girls," appears in a science communication edition of the entomology journal Annals of the Entomological Society of America. In it, lead author Morgan Jackson—who sent out ESC's original tweet enlisting help for Sophia—writes about the impact Sophia's story had and how social media can be used as a tool by scientists. Sophia herself is listed as a co-author, and her section affirms that bugs are indeed awesome. "My favorite bugs are snails, slugs, and caterpillars, but my favorite one of all is grasshoppers. Last year in the fall I had a best bug friend and his name was Hoppers," she wrote.

Sophia also describes how the project made her feel more confident about her love of bugs. "It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs. It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers," she wrote. Sophia has even managed to open the eyes of some of her peers since going viral: "I told my best friend and her sister about bugs, and now they think they're cool, and her sister will pick up any bug! I think other girls who saw my story would like to study bugs too."

[h/t Science Alert]

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2017 Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Research on How Crocodiles Affect Gambling and Other Odd Studies
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The Ig Nobel Prizes are back, and this year's winning selection of odd scientific research topics is as weird as ever. As The Guardian reports, the 27th annual awards of highly improbable studies "that first make people laugh, then make them think" were handed out on September 14 at a theater at Harvard University. The awards, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, honor research you never would have thought someone would take the time (or the funding) to study, much less would be published.

The 2017 highlights include a study on whether cats can be both a liquid and a solid at the same time and one on whether the presence of a live crocodile can impact the behavior of gamblers. Below, we present the winners from each of the 10 categories, each weirder and more delightful than the last.

PHYSICS

"For using fluid dynamics to probe the question 'Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?'"

Winner: Marc-Antoine Fardin

Study: "On the Rheology of Cats," published in Rheology Bulletin [PDF]

ECONOMICS

"For their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble."

Winners: Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer

Study: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," published in the Journal of Gambling Studies

ANATOMY

"For his medical research study 'Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?'"

Winner: James A. Heathcote

Study: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" published in the BMJ

BIOLOGY

"For their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect."

Winners: Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard (who delivered their acceptance speech via video from inside a cave)

Study: "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," published in Current Biology

FLUID DYNAMICS

"For studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee."

Winner: Jiwon Han

Study: "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," published in Achievements in the Life Sciences

NUTRITION

"For the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat."

Winners: Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres

Study: "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," published in Acta Chiropterologica

MEDICINE

"For using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese."

Winners: Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang

Study: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

COGNITION

"For demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually."

Winners: Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti

Study: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," published in PLOS One

OBSTETRICS

"For showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother's vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother's belly."

Winners: Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino, and Luis Pallarés Aniorte

Study: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission,” published in Ultrasound

PEACE PRIZE

"For demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring."

Winners: Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, and Otto Braendli

Study: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," published by the BMJ

Congratulations, all.

[h/t The Guardian]

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