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”

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