A journey into the eyes and mind of a naturalist.

Sphinx Moth Slow-Mo

While in Montana in August I went on a photographic safari of the local pollinators.   The wild flower season was past peak and the available pollen sources were largely from “weed” plants of thistle.  This made it easy pickings for a photographer stalking his prey.  Instead of chasing after an individual insects through a field of wildflowers I just had to sit and wait, they had no where else to go.  I was the lion sitting at the shrinking watering hole waiting for my thirsty prey to arrive.

On thistle patch was teeming with bumble bees of various species.  Then, above the rhythmic hum of the bumbles, I heard a different tone join the mix.   On the back side of the small patch I saw the Goliath of the invertebrate pollinator world (at least in the northern latitudes).   A White Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata) was systematically working its way through the patch, never hitting the same flower twice.

Sphinx Moths are metabolic endurance athletes.  They hover with exact precision above their target flower and systematically drain it of every drop of nectar using their long proboscis to probe every last nook and cranny.   The tip of their tongue is, at a microscopic level, a fine brush able to absorb the smallest amount of nectar available.  Every drop is essential to maintain their active flight and body functions


Each stroke of their wings consists of an upstroke and a down-stroke to ensure the body maintains consistent position in both vertical and horizontal planes.   The body seems to be stationary as the wings endlessly cycle to maintain flight.  Sphinx Moths share the same wing motion with their vertebrate counterparts, the humming birds.


The above two pictures show this down stroke and then an up stroke.  The wings to not simply move up and down but also back and forth.  This unique flight pattern is supported with large flight muscles and an endless appetite for nectar.  Sphinx Moths, unlike many other insects, are able to maintain a constant internal temperature higher than the surrounding air.  This ability allows them to maintain their foraging even in cool evening or night air.  The downside of this adaptation is that those flight muscles must be warm before flight is possible.  If you find a roosting Sphinx Moth on a cool morning it will be incapable of flight.   Before flight is possible it puts its flight muscles in “neutral” and begins to cycle them.  This process cycles the muscles warming the body without moving the wings.   During this warm-up period the moth’s wings and body shutter or shiver with the shear power and torque produced from the muscles.

The physics involved to explain the majestic flight of this large moth would be enough to boggle the minds of most people and yet all too often we take these amazing feats of nature for granted.  This is not simply some creation put here for the enjoyment of humans this is highly specialized efficient machine that is the product of millions of generations of selection and adaptation to fill its niche.

Moths and other pollinators are essential for the reproduction of many plants and even more importantly many of the foods that we eat.  If we take these seemingly insignificant invertebrates for granted we will lose the very source of much of our food.  The intimate relationship that has been developed between plants and pollinator has been developing for the past 80 million years or so.  Some plants are so specialized that they depend on a single species of pollinator to ensure the success of the next generation.   Loss of the pollinator means loss of the plant, and vice versa.

The earth is not simply a collection of different organisms living together.  It is an infinite web of interconnection that is build on relationships between and among species.  Loss of even a single species can have ramifications far beyond the obvious.  If we forget the importance of each species we forget the importance of the system as a whole.   Conservation should not look to save a single species but communities.  What would the wolf be without the woods.  What would the bison be without the prairie?  What would our world look like with the loss of a pollinator?

These are not easy questions to answer.  All too often we are swayed by politics and pocketbooks before we actually realize the true meaning of conservation and how it affects our planet and all life on it.


One response

  1. Deb

    By the way, these are amazing photos, the colors and seeing the proboscis working!

    October 27, 2012 at 21:26

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