A mural on moth wings

Evo-devo biologist extraordinaire Antónia Monteiro is visiting campus this week, and she shared with us this photograph of a simply unbelievable Malaysian moth:

Macrocilix maia, Malaysia

Do you see the mural?

Mimicry is common in insects. Some adopt the cryptic appearance of sticks or leaves, some ape the stripes of stinging wasps, and some sport the colors of poisonous butterflies. There are caterpillars that look like bird droppings, and beetles that look like caterpillar frass. I’ve even seen a blister beetle that mimics a harvester ant running backward dragging a seed.

But Macrocilix maia is a first. It’s the only mimic insect I know that paints an entire scene. It looks like a watercolor. Two red-eyed muscomorph flies feed from fresh bird droppings, complete with light glinting off their wings. I’ve never seen anything like it!

The scant published research on the mural moth is systematic in nature, with nary a mention of the incredible mimicry. In fact, the photo-sharing site Flickr has outpaced any academic work: photographer Allan Lee reports in 2009 that the moth reinforces the imagery with a pungent odor. That’s the extent of our knowledge. Macrocilix maia is a Ph.D. project waiting to happen.

60 thoughts on “A mural on moth wings”

  1. This is amazing! I share Warren’s sceptisism though. Firstly, there is the well-known tendency of humans to recognise familiar shapes and patterns in nature (jesus on toast?), and secondly would a hungry insectivore not be tempted to have a meal of 2 nice flies?

    It’s worth mentioning, however, that neither of these two points detract from the impact of this amazing moth!

  2. it could be a mantis with arms held in the karate kid crane position. hard to see in this photo, but do a google image search on Macrocilix maia and you’ll see what i mean

  3. I saw two chunkly little red-head-capsuled herbivorous beetle larvae first, not flies (but that reflects my own observational and taxonomic biases, and in no way takes into account the species interactions and natural history of the critter in question). Either way, the patterns are striking and the possible research questions one could ask (and the study designs!) with this animal seem like waaaay too much fun. How about a post-doc?

  4. I agree — i’m skeptical too, two flies do still seem like a pretty tasty meal…

    I know this is a long shot, but is there any chance that the moth is trying to attract other flies? I’ve never heard of a predatory moth, but then again, this moth is already doing something super unique…

    what an awesome potential PhD project!!

  5. Henry Hespnheide

    I’m finishing up a paper on fly-mimicking buprestid beetles. I first proposed this many years ago: Hespenheide, H.A. (1973) A novel mimicry complex: beetles and flies. Journal of Entomology (London), A, 48, 49–56. Skepticism aside, albeit honored, one needs some sort of hypothesis for bright color patterns that recur in a number of unrelated taxa.

    1. I’ll have to photograph some of the moth mimicry I see in Panama during one of my frequent trips there. While not as amazing as this moth, there are some pretty fantastic moths out there that are invisible until they land on the sheet or wall.

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  7. I’m as skeptical of the comments about flies making a tasty meal as about the apparent image. Anyone who tries to collect flies knows how good some are at not being caught. I can’t remember seeing any bird chasing small flies, but I’ve seen many going after moths.

    Most birds do not have a well developed sense of smell (magpies, vultures, and probably other carrion feeders excepted) and Malaysia may be expected to have monkeys, so if this really is a stinky fly-blown mimic, then the illusion may be aimed more at primates more than birds. That should be an easy hypothesis to test for anyone willing to go through all the animal care paperwork.

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  9. I’m not sure why all the skepticism. I think these look quite like sarcophagid flies, such as http://bugguide.net/node/view/415648. Eating these can result in myasis (maggots in your innards), since the females produce maggots (rather than eggs), which escape from the mother when she is injured, and could do so in the oesophagus, where they coudl cause some real damage. Not such edible fare!
    But as you say, Alex, all testable, and worth study.

  10. I can definitely see the flies there and agree that it’s worth mimicking them. While I’m still skeptical that it’s intended to mimic flies, I can’t think of another way these images might work. Still amazing though, and I hope some nut doesn’t use this to promote some silly idea of creationism or intelligent design.

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  18. Looks to me, like 2 mold infected larva of some kind. The body of the moth, looking like a fully formed Cordyceps body.

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  24. This is a really interesting case.
    It should be remembered though that moths rest with wings folded, so that the underwing is only displayed when the moth is disturbed. It would be good to see what this moth resembles in resting state – perhaps 2 flies head-to-head? Or just one if the forewings fold over each other (unlikely in this species, I think). There are 2 relevant functions of wing appearance, 1) camouflage (usually only the forewing involved in this), and 2) scare-tactics.

    1. Actually the above photo is it’s resting state. I had the opportunity of seeing and photographing these moths on Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo and they don’t fold their wings when at rest.

  25. That’s surprising … but as none of us are moths, and therefore neither see nor ‘think’ in the same way, then all of the above amounts to idle speculation. Whatever the effect, it must work for them!

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