How Do The Moth Larvae Survive Predators?

Many caterpillar species have evolved to resemble their surroundings, such as leaves, twigs, or bark. This camouflage makes it difficult for predators to spot them. Some caterpillars even have structures or patterns that mimic the texture and coloration of their host plants.

Moth larvae (and moth caterpillars) are pretty defenseless. So, how can they survive hungry predators?

One word: camouflage. The location where these Lepidoptera lay eggs on tree trunks and leaves plays a big role in their overall survival. Some moth species are so good at camouflage that some humans keep their distance!

So, let’s take a look at what it takes for larvae to make it into their cocoons and emerge as adult moths.

What are the Predators of Moth Larvae?

Moth larvae have a long list of predators, making it difficult for most species of moths to evolve into adult moths. Some of these predators include:

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  • Birds
  • Bats
  • Lizards
  • Small rodents
  • Hornets
  • Ants
  • Spiders
  • Beetles

These predators not only dine on moths in the larval stage, but continue to be predators through the pupa (caterpillar) stage, and the adult moth stage of their life cycle. What’s interesting, however, is that moths retain information even after they go through metamorphosis in their cocoons.

A 2008 study by entomologist Nancy Miorell shows that butterflies and moths retain their memories (like what predators to look out for) after they morph into adult moths. Which gives them a bit of an edge to survive.

How Do Moth Larvae Survive Predation?

Different moth species have various tools to survive the pupa stage. From camouflage to mimicry, they blend into various environments to avoid hungry predators. Moths from England to North America use their environment in different ways to stay protected.

Let’s use the Peppered moth and the Hawkmoth as an example of how moth larvae survive.

Peppered Moth (Carbonaria): The peppered moth (Biston betularia) is a great example of natural selection at work. Light-colored Peppered moths were easy to spot by predators at night, so they slowly evolved into darker shades. And the Peppered moth larvae is strikingly similar to a twig on a tree branch covered in lichens.

So, they are very difficult to detect by predators. Because of its amazing mimicry, the Peppered moth is very widespread in Europe, especially in England and Ireland. While they are masters of disguise, Peppered moths do not live longer than one year.

Hawk Moth (Sphingidae): The Hawk moth took an opposite approach to the Peppered moth. Hawk Moth larvae look very similar to a dangerous pit viper. It’s uncanny how strikingly similar the Hawk moth caterpillar looks to the pit viper, and it’s served it well.

Predators, even humans, keep their distance from the harmless (but scary-looking) Hawk moth caterpillars. And since females lay up to 500 eggs at a time, the survival rate of these moth caterpillars is very high.

What Are Some Other Ways That Moth Larvae Survive Predators?

Blending in is one way for Moth larvae to survive predators. But sometimes, standing out is their best line of defense.

Eye spots

Both moth caterpillars and adult moths have eye spots on their bodies and their impressive wingspan. And while they look purely decorative to the human eye, these spots serve a very important function.

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar, Tiger Swallowtail, and Tersa Sphinx all appear to have giant eyes. But these aren’t their actual eyes, but eyespots.

They are a way to look much larger than they are to scare away potential predators. In reality, caterpillar eyes are tiny dots on their head.

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Color of the moths and caterpillars

The coloring of moths and caterpillars also helps them blend into their surroundings. Brightly colored larvae or moths don’t blend into their environment, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Predators in tropical regions relate bright colors to toxic and poisonous plants and animals. The bright colors are a way to tell predators that if they eat them, they may die!

How Did Moth Larvae Evolve to Mimic Their Environment?

In 1859, Charles Darwin introduced the idea of natural selection. Animals and insects that adapt to the environment around them are more likely to survive and procreate.

Let’s take the Peppered moth for example. At one time, there was a Peppered moth caterpillar that looked very similar to a tree branch. And that moth had a higher chance of surviving because it blended in so well with its environment. Fast forward a few hundred years, and all Peppered moth caterpillars blend in with tree branches!

It’s amazing how animals and insects find ways to survive – even helpless little caterpillars.

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