500,000: that’s how many moth species scientists think there could be in the world. There are at least 160,000 moth species, more than ten times the number there are of butterflies (which moths are related to); the U.S. alone has 11,000 species of moths.
As those numbers suggest, moths are some of the most diverse organisms on the planet. They live in plants and trees and can be found around the world. Most are nocturnal but some can also be active during the day or at twilight.
Moths and their caterpillars or larvae (including corn borers and bollworms) are often regarded as major agricultural pests; gypsy moths are an invasive species that has been known to cause severe damage to forests in the U.S.’s northeast. But moths play a crucial role in ecosystems across the globe. They and their caterpillars provide food for insects, spiders, frogs, toads, lizards, bats and birds; moths also pollinate some flowers while feeding on their nectar.
As moths are so widespread around the world and live in so many different sorts of habitats, they can provide many clues about the health of our environment in regard to the effects of pesticides, air pollution and climate change.
Moths have been in decline in the U.K. and other places. More than 60 species became extinct in the U.K. in the 20th century. Counting moths is key to checking on the health of their populations and July 20 – 28 has been designated as National Moth Week in the U.S. and around the world. Here are ten moth species that give just a small picture of the amazing range of their colors, shapes and sizes.
1. Giant Atlas Moth
One of the world’s largest insects and usually seen in Malaysia and south-east Asia, a foot-long one was found in Lancashire in the U.K. last year. The females are larger and heavier than the males and live only for a week, just long enough to reproduce.
2. Cecropia Moth
The Cecropia moth is the largest moth native to North America. Its wingspan is about 6 inches; it is found (often on maple, cherry and birch trees) as far west as the Rocky Mountains and (going north) into most of Canada’s provinces.
3. Polyphemus Moth
This American moth gets its name from Greek mythology: Polyphemus was the name of the Cyclops, a one-eyed monster. The Polyphemus moth has two distinctive eye spots and can be found as far north as subarctic Canada.
Photos from Thinkstock unless otherwise noted.
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