Like other members of the Noctuidae or "owlet" family of nocturnal moths, this Ultronia Underwing (Catocala ultronia) taking an afternoon nap on the side of our house has a colorful surprise waiting in the wings for would-be predators. Underneath the dull gray-and-black speckled forewings (above x 1.5), bright orange underwings lie in wait, ready to startle birds or bats or other Lepidopterophages looking for a tasty meal.
"You may want to look at something out in the yard," Tuck suggested this afternoon, taking a break from his grading project in the West Forty to deliver an insect advisory. The insect in question was a large, hairy, mottled gray-and-black moth attached to the side of the house that he said reminded him of our June garden visitor, the Great Ash Sphinx Moth, but "maybe a little smaller." Grabbing our camera, we strode out and got a couple of pictures with an eye to googling a definitive ID later on. (The color above is a little browner than it looked to the naked eye. See image below for a closer match.) Then things got interesting. Hoping to coax the sleepy owlet moth onto our hand for further observation -- the way Tuck had done with the Great Ash -- we approached with a cautious finger. Suddenly it took flight, flashing a gorgeous pair of Monarch-orange underwings as it rose and banked off toward the forested edge of the clearing beside the house.
Things happened too quickly for us to stand a chance of capturing the moth's secret weapon in action. Besides, up to that moment we had thought it was just a run-of-the-mill, gray-and-black moth. These photographs from Bill Oelkhe's Silkmoths site tell the story. (Credits: D. Lynn Scott l. and Tim Dyson r.)
There the sleep-disturbed nocturnal alit upon the trunk of a venerable Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), where it proceeded to give the US Armed Forces' latest fractal and digitized camo patterns a run for their money:
Once the Ultronia Underwing had landed on the ruggedly shaggy and fissured gray-and-black bark of one of our Black Cherries, a predator would have been hard put to pick it out from the surrounds. As Defense Review said re digitized camouflage, "You can't hit what you can't see," And as we blogged awhile back in the same context, "Digitized camo is impressive, but nobody does it better than the animals."
Camouflage and surprise are great when you're trying to avoid being eaten by a bird, but some members of the owlet moth family that are preyed upon by bats have developed another survival tool, "an evasive system whereby upon hearing the high pitched note which is emitted by the bat to locate its prey, a tiny organ in the ear sends muscles in the wings into spasm, causing the moth to dart around erratically. This random movement has the effect of evading the incoming bat." That sounds like something Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi might try to avoid getting tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.