An ode to moths and their breathtaking biophysics

I spent far too long thinking moths were just agricultural pests, lamp fanatics, and the homely cousins of butterflies. And a bizarre 2018 meme, and a storytelling podcast. I was so wrong to ever write them off. With spectacular colors and thrilling evolutionary history, moths are my new favorite animal.

Dr. Adrian Smith, an assistant professor at NC State, believes in spreading the beauty of insects, and he explains the fascinating biophysics of insects on the Youtube channel Ant Lab. In a recent video about moths, his slow-motion footage shows their tiny facial expressions and fuzzy texture. Commenter @alice thru the looking glass said the moths are "like tiny teddy bears." Commenter @Baby Bean wrote, "It's adorable how their legs raise up when they're about to fly.. like they're cheering! 'Weeeeeee!'"

"I think the most useful thing I can do as a scientist is to point the fancy science cameras at some moths flapping their wings in front of a purple backdrop. I mean, whose day isn't gonna be better after watching and pink and yellow rosy maple moth fly in super slow motion?" narrates Dr. Adrian Smith.

Moths have been around for 300 million years, and one highlight of their evolutionary history is a delightfully dramatic arms race with bats. After bats evolved sonar echolocation to find prey, moths developed a hearing-like mechanism to detect and dodge the bats' sound pulses. Bats began using sonar frequencies that moths couldn't detect, but 26 million years ago, hawkmoths starting producing sound pulses of their own— which confuses the bats and "jams" their sonar.

They're clever prey, and they also can have stunningly good looks. Though many moths are, indeed, drab shades of beige, moths come in every color of the rainbow. One particularly bright species is the rosy maple moth, a tiny pink and yellow beauty that you can spot in deciduous forests in eastern North America. Another one of my favorites is the Io moth (pronounced EYE-oh), one of the types with eyespots to frighten predators.

The differences between moths and butterflies aren't always clear-cut, but moths tend to have more feathery antennae than the thin, hook-shaped appendages on butterflies. While butterflies can fold their wings vertically above their back, moths tend to rest with their wings horizontal.