Little virgin tiger moth: Multiple protection modes

Coming home from watching fireworks on the Fourth of July (we were able to watch from the safety of our car), I spotted a colorful moth on the sidewalk outside our home. It was alive but barely moving, which means I had all the time I wanted to photograph it. I used a game box to prop up my husband’s phone, experimenting with using a second flash. On the good side, I was able to get a good, sharp shot. But the strong shadow almost overshadowed the moth’s beautiful feathery antennae. That’s something I’ll have to keep working out.

Getting photos is fun but I also enjoy the challenge of identification. My first step is always to upload it to the inaturalist app, where I can sometimes easily figure out what it is. Other times I have to spend more time checking Google for clues. Sometimes I can’t identify what it is with 100 percent certainty, so I just label it with a broad category and hope another member of inaturalist helps me out.

This moth seemed like a a slam dunk identification, with it’s distinctive pattern, texture and colors. What was a bit harder was finding a good source with additional information about this beautiful, fuzzy, feathery and colorful creature. Then I found a Bug O’ the Week post at the website of the Riveredge Nature Center in Saukville, Wisc., which had a lot of really great stuff about the virgin tiger moth. 1.)

Something that stood out of me was that the caterpillar of this moth isn’t considered a plant pest. They feed on low herbaceous and woody vegetation, such as clover, willow and, a particular favorite, bedstraw. I had to look that up because I was picturing straw used as bedding in gardens, to reduce weeds but, no, it’s an actual weed. I love learning new things! Every time you’re wrong it’s an opportunity to learn something new.

But the most interesting thing about this moth is the multiple ways it protects itself.

1. It’s toxic from the plants it eats as a caterpillar, which makes it taste bad.

2. The colors are a warning to predators.

3. Tiger moths also have tymbal organs on their thorax, which they can use to produce ultrasonic sound, which protects them from bat predators.

4. They sometimes play dead, laying upside down, curling up their abdomen and showing their hind wings.

5. When squeezed a generous amount of yellow chemical foam oozes out, which contains the alkaloids the caterpillar consumed.

As always, I enjoyed learning about the little virgin tiger moth. But no, I never did learn why it has the word virgin in it’s name!

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