Young caterpillars of the Heterogynis penella species eat their own mothers.

Young caterpillars of the Heterogynis penella species eat their own mothers. Image by Valter Jacinto, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Seven of the world's weirdest moths

From moths eating their own mothers to carnivorous caterpillars on the rampage, the world of insects isn't always as it seems.

Some species of moth have developed dark and unusual habits in the fight for survival.

Discover seven of the most bizarre techniques moths use to survive and thrive in their habitats.

The mandolin moth serenades his potential mates

The mandolin moth serenades his potential mates. Image by The Natural Europe Project, Hungarian Natural History Museum. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

1. The musical mandolin moth

This creature has been romantically dubbed the mandolin moth by scientists because the male serenades the female when it is time to mate.

The hind wings of the male Rileyiana fovea are concave instead of flat, just like a mandolin. One of the veins in the wing has a knot in it, which the moth scratches with his hind leg to produce a song.

As part of the courtship ritual, the male gracefully plays a tune to his mate on his mandolin in an attempt to impress her.

A caterpillar traps its victim before eating it

A caterpillar traps its victim in silk threads. © Rubinoff Lab, University of Hawaii.

2. Carnivorous caterpillars

Most caterpillars feed on plants, but there are a small minority that prefer meat at meal times.

Some species in Hawaii have knife-like claws on their front legs, instead of the short, stout claws usually used by caterpillars to cling to plants.

These allow them to kill and eat passing flies and other small insects.

They hunt by lying still across a leaf, disguising their long bodies as twigs. When an insect gets too close, the caterpillar whips its head around and grabs its victim.

Another Hawaiian caterpillar, Hyposmocoma molluscivora, traps snails in their silk threads, so they can take their time to devour their prey.

A male of the Heterogynis penella species

A male of the Heterogynis penella species. Image by Valter Jacinto, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


3. Cannibalism in the cocoon

Found in the Mediterranean region, the young caterpillars of the Heterogynis penella species eat their own mothers as soon as they hatch.

The female moths don't have legs or wings, so they can never venture far from their cocoons.

After mating, they return to the cocoon and hatch their larvae. And when the young hatch, they immediately eat their mother, meaning they get a meal rich in fat before they start their lives alone.

An image of Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica

The Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica is found in Africa, and lives off the tears of birds. Image by Christian Wieser, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

4. Blood-sucking moths

One species of moth in Madagascar, the Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica, sucks the tears from underneath the eyelids of birds while they sleep.

Their mouth parts are shaped like a harpoon, and are used to suck salt-rich liquid from the birds' eyes.

Many other species in Africa and Asia use a similar method to suck the blood of mammals, including humans.

In the forests of eastern Russia, a species called Calyptra eustrigata has been observed feeding on a man's blood.

The water veneer, or Acentria ephemerella

The water veener is thought to be the only truly amphibious moth. Flickr photo by Thijs Calu, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

5. An underwater wonder

Some caterpillars live in ponds and lakes, spending part of their lives submerged.

The larvae develop beneath the surface and the cocoons rise up to the top of the water to hatch.

The water veneer, Acentria ephemerella, can be found in the UK's waterways, and is a scientific marvel because it is thought to be a truly amphibious moth.

It is as happy living in water as on dry land. The caterpillars have no gills, but draw in oxygen through their skin.

Most moths lay eggs which then become larvae.

Most moths lay eggs which then become larvae. Image by Tony Wills, licensed under CC-BY 2.5.

6. Acting like a mammal

Some tiny Monopis moths from the Indo-Australian region are more like mammals than insects when it comes to reproduction.

Instead of laying their eggs, they keep them inside their body until the caterpillars are fully formed, and then 'give birth'.

They are the only known moths to reproduce like this.

A 'sloth moth' specimen from the Museum's collection

A 'sloth moth' specimen from the Museum's collection

7. The sloth moth

Moths in the Cryptoses genus from South America spend their lives in the thick fur of sloths.

Females wait until the sloth descends the tree to defecate, and then lay their eggs in the fresh droppings.

Caterpillars develop in the droppings, and once the adult moths emerge they fly high into the trees to reach their own host sloths.