Before she fell in love with moths (and even wrote the book Field Guide to Indian Moths), V Shubhalaxmi would scream if she saw a caterpillar. Here, the Moth Lady tells us what makes moths so special and why they are no less than butterflies.
What is National Moth Week and why do we need one?
Every year, National Moth Week is held worldwide, during the last full week of July. It celebrates the beauty, life cycles and habitats of moths. Started in 2011 by David Moskowitz and Liti Haramaty, it’s a global platform which offers everyone, everywhere a unique opportunity to become a Citizen Scientist and contribute scientific data about moths. Through partnerships with major online biological data depositories, its participants can help map moth distribution and provide needed information on other life history aspects around the globe. It encourages interested people and “Moth-ers” of all ages and abilities to learn about, observe, and document moths in their backyards, parks, and neighborhoods.
Tell us what makes moths special.
Moths are among the most diverse and successful organisms on earth. Scientists estimate there are around 1,42,000 moth species in the world. Their colours and patterns are either dazzling or so cryptic that they define camouflage. Shapes and sizes span the gamut from as small as a pinhead to as large as an adult’s hand. They offer a huge array of ecological benefits, from pollinating plants to feeding birds, bats and even people around the globe. Moths especially macromoths, may be used as indicators of environmental quality. They are food to a variety of animals. Apart from this, silk is one of the most important contributions of moths to the world economy.
Some interesting facts about moths
* Atlas moth, with a wingspan of 30cm, is the largest moth in India and second largest in the world.
* Some moths don’t feed as they don’t have mouth parts in adult stage.
* Moths have eyelashes.
* Some moths can produce cyanide in their body to keep the predators away.
* The vampire moth feeds on animal blood whereas some moths feed on animal tears.
* Moths have two ears situated below the hind wings at the end of thorax called tympanic organs.
* Moths can produce sound with the help of tymbals which are the sound producing organs. These are used during matting to attract mate or to warn predators of their distastefulness.
* Some moths and caterpillars are great mimics. To avoid being eaten, some moths have evolved to look like less palatable insects, such as wasps, tarantulas and the praying mantis. Some moths even mimic bird droppings. Whereas some caterpillars bluff to be snakes and some are nettled.
* Though they lack noses, moths are expert sniffers. A male moth can smell a female more than 10 km away.
* More than 90 percent of people in some African countries eat moth and butterfly caterpillars, according to a 2004 survey by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
How many varieties of moths exist around the world and in India?
There are around 1,42,000 moth species in the world. In India, over 12,000 moth species have been recorded, yet this number is far from being correct as major work is needed to prepare a comprehensive list.
Moths are seen in every region, as long as their host plants are available. While they are found mostly in tropical regions, their diversity and abundance vary across habitats and are highest in rainforests and pristine evergreen forests. Therefore, the best mothing sites in India are in Western Ghats and Northeast. Nevertheless, moths are also seen in urban and semi-urban areas. Some species like the Oleander Hawkmoth (Daphnus nerii) are sighted more often in cities than in forests. As long the weather is right, moths can be seen around homes at nights.
Some unique moths
Atlas Moth: This is second largest moth of India measuring upto 1 foot. It is non-feeding moth which practically has no mouth parts therefore it has a lifespan upto two weeks
Cheerful Parasa: The caterpillar is slug like with sharp spines which if touched could give very bad itch. They are found feeding on mango trees where one could see their while oval cocoons on the bark which appear like some egg.
Owl Moth: As the name suggests, the moth has owl like feather and eye patterns which the moths uses to defend itself against small bird while it is resting during day time.
Rosy Gypsy: This is also a non-feeding moth who has caterpillars that has tufts of hair pockets on the back therefore known as tussock caterpillars. The body hairs have irritating properties
Vishnou Lappet: Yet another non-feeding moth, which has large hairy caterpillars that feed on wild almond trees. The moth has a unique way of resting, where the upper wing is pulled back and underwings are pulled forward under the upper wings.
Yellow-banded Forester: This is a dayflying moth which keeps itself protected by distasteful body liquids. The caterpillars are known to have cyanide in their bodies as a means of protection.
How can parents get kids interested in wildlife and even insects?
In today’s concrete world parents play an important role to keep children attached to nature. They should take out kids to visit national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and forested patches. Frequent nature walks are the best. Children should be encouraged to take up hobbies like bird watching, wildlife photography, gardening etc and to take up small projects.
If kids want to observe moths, where and how can they start?
Kids can start by observing the lights in the society gardens at night as usually moths get attracted towards light and can be seen resting around them. They can also start by rearing moth caterpillars usually found in vegetables such as green pea. A few organisations like iNaturewatch Foundation conduct moth watching programmes for kids.
What sparked your interest in moths?
As a child, I was afraid of insects, a fear I picked up from my mother. Since Science was my favourite subject during my school days like many, I dreamt of becoming a medical doctor. Unfortunately—or fortunately—I did not get the marks required to pass the medical entrance test and lost interest then. But when I learnt that I could still become a ‘doctor’ by getting a PhD, I regained my fascination for earning the prefix Dr and pursued a BSc. During my college years, I was fortunate to come in contact with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) as a student member. However, it was not until July 1993 that my life and career took a dramatic turn. As a fresh BSc graduate, I joined the BNHS as an administrative assistant. This job was a stepping stone for me to pursue further studies and fulfill my dream of doing my PhD. My mentor, Isaac Kehimkar was the first to help me overcome my entomophobia.
He heard me exclaim in disgust at the sight of a caterpillar and told me that if I wanted to make a career in this field, I needed to conquer my aversion to insects. Things were different thereafter.
At the BNHS, the late Naresh Chaturvedi, the then curator, signed me up as his first student for MSc (by research). I was keen on studying butterflies, but he insisted that I focus on moths since few were studying moth ecology. At the time, I considered moths only as butterflies of the night. For the next 10 years, I studied the ecology of Hawkmoths and Emperor Moths of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, for my postgraduate as well as doctoral studies. During this time, I gained popularity among BNHS members as ‘the moth lady’. Along with pursuing my research work, I worked on popularising moths among the general public through nature education. These efforts led to recognition of the importance of moths, and moths began to gain an equal footing with butterflies. These effects were amplified by several citizen-driven initiatives across the country.
How much of your work has to do with Indian moths?
All my work on moths is done on Indian moths. Apart from the moth research work, I run a company Ladybird Environmental Consulting which works majorly on CSR projects. I have also started a charitable trust called iNaturewatch Foundation with an aim of developing environmentally sensitive citizens by engaging them with environment through our various innovative initiatives. The goal of the trust is building field-oriented environmentally resilient communities.
Tell us about the research for your book on moths in India.
The research work involved identification of moths, their distribution, life history, host plants and updated classification. It took me 20 years to bring out the first field guide on Indian moths.
5 online resources to learn about moths
Aganainae (Snouted Tigers) http://www.aganaidae.nl/
An Identification Guide of Japanese Moths. http://www.jpmoth.org/
Sphingidae of South-east Asia :http://www.sphin-sea.unibas.ch/
Indian Biodiversity Portal: http://indiabiodiversity.org/species/list?taxon=70513
Moths of India: http://www.mothsofindia.org/home
10 social media resources on moths
Butterfly and Moths of Sikkim: https://www.facebook.com/groups/sikkimbutterfliesnmoths/
Butterfly and Moths of Bhutan: https://www.facebook.com/groups/bhutanmoths/
Moths Lifehistories: https://www.facebook.com/groups/mothlifehistories/
Mothing and Mothwatching: https://www.facebook.com/groups/137219092972521/
Moths of India: https://www.flickr.com/groups/mothsofindia
Moths of Maharashtra: https://www.flickr.com/groups/mothsofmaharashtra
Moths of the World: https://www.facebook.com/MothsOfTheWorld/
National Moth Week: https://www.facebook.com/NationalMothWeek/
(For more information on moths, you and your kids can visit www.inaturewatch.org )