Bloodthirsty butterflies (Amazing parasites, part 3)

In the previous posts of this series we saw the neurosurgeon jewel wasp and the caterpillars changing the color of their host to beautiful shades of red. You didn’t really believe that that’s all, right? Parasites have some of the most creative lifestyles ever to be observed. So today, we’re going to look into another type of fascinating parasite – one with a rather morbid taste – for blood and tears.

Have you seen the movie or read the book “Silence of the lambs”? On the cover of both (in most releases) there is a moth of the species Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica.

hemiceratoides hieroglyphica1 upp RB
Photo: R. Butler

While plenty of blood/tears feeding moths and butterflies are known to have a drink on mammals, this was the first to be found to feed on the tears of sleeping birds.

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Moths have already been seen as rather morbid insects as they are mostly active at dusk and at night, but this is pushing it even a little bit further on the “weird” scale. They also employ a different method to get to the blood and tears of their hosts, than the mosquitoes do. Their proboscis (an organ essentially the same as an elephant’s trunk) is structured differently than the one of mosquitoes too – it has two parts and the access to the given fluid happens in two stages. At first, the moth wiggles its head left and right in order to scratch the skin enough so the proboscis can penetrate it. During the second stage, it rocks its head so it can pierce even deeper and reach the fluid in the eye or an actual blood vessel. Once it starts feeding, microscopic hooks-like structures on the “trunk” expand and penetrate the surrounding tissue so the moth does not detach easily from its host.

 

F3.medium
Proboscis’ hooks (from “Proboscis morphology and its relationship to feeding habits of noctuid moths” by Zenker et. al)

Moths drinking tears of birds have been described for the first time only several years ago in Madagascar and a new blood sucking species – in the 1990s, in Russia. It proves that alternative lifestyles might be evolving more quickly than we originally thought. In most cases the advantage of drinking bodily fluids of animals for moths and butterflies is the easily accessible mineral salts rather than complex nutrients. And while they have been shown to pose no threats for humans, I will think again before letting a moth crash for the night in my room…

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