Colourful, camouflaged, hairy and horned – moths and caterpillars come in all shapes and sizes and each species has its own story to tell, according to Hermann Staude, one of the three experts who contributed to Southern Africa Moths and their Caterpillars.
The 464-page guide, published by Struik Nature, was launched by Penguin Random House and the Botanical Society of SA, at Kirstenbosch on Tuesday October 24.
According to publisher Pippa Parker, it is the most comprehensive guidebook of the region’s live specimens ever produced. Previous books used dead specimens.
Ms Parker said the guide is a must-have reference for nature enthusiasts, entomologists, gardeners and farmers.
Mr Staude is the founder and project leader of the Caterpillar Rearing Group, a citizen-science project of the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa. He told the 200-plus audience that lepidopterans (Lepidoptera is an order of insects that includes butterflies and moths) spend a very brief time as adults. During their lifespan, which can be a few days, their prime objective is to lay eggs.
Bat moths live 80m underground and have been found in Sterkfontein feeding on bat guano. Cycad moths feed on their namesake, but with these ancient plants becoming rare in nature, so are the moths.
Mr Staude said there are hundreds of undescribed species, but with few lepidopterists in the southern hemisphere, he encourages youngsters to go into this field of science.
A recent finding, said Mr Staude, showed how moths vocalise ultrasonically and use the same sound to fend off would-be predators such as bats who pick up the sound and leave them alone.
Moths feed on lichens, natural fibres in clothes, any grain products, rice and nuts, nectar and liquids from rotting fruits. They will also infest birdseed, pet food, dried pasta and dried fruit.
Another of the book’s authors, Mike Picker, emeritus professor in UCT’s department of biological sciences, said moths’ design and patterns are complex. Many have a combination of colours – red, black and yellow, which are warning signs. Some are patterned to attract courtship; for others, the design is in response to thermo-regulation, and black is for heat absorption.
Unlike other creatures, such as birds where the male is more exotically coloured than the female, Dr Picker said the only way to identify if a moth or caterpillar is male or female is through DNA sequencing.
“The wonder is that caterpillars look so different to the moth. There are two individuals in one organism. They are one of life’s miracles, two totally different forms and the pupae are where the magic ends,” said Dr Picker.
The book’s introduction includes information covering the evolution, life cycle, diversity and ecological importance of moths.
The book describes more than 1 500 of the 11 000 species found in southern Africa and it has photographs of both the adult moth and larva, many from lepidopterists and amateur citizen scientists.
Descriptions include identification pointers plus information on biology, habitat and distribution.
The third author is Charles Griffiths, another emeritus professor at UCT’s department of biological sciences, who is known for Field Guide to Insects of South Africa and Pocket Guide to Insects of South Africa.