Catocala relicta behavior

Behavioral Ecology Lessons
by T. D. Sargent


CD of Sargent's Legion of Night available

Catocala relicta behavior correlates with its cryptic coloration

The Underwing Moths (Noctuidae, genus Catocala provide some of the best examples of cryptic coloration. These large and beautiful moths are named for their spectacular hindwings, which presumably serve as startle devices. But it is the forewings that provide their initial line of defense, enabling the moths to become nearly invisible on the backgrounds (tree trunks) upon which they rest.

In one study with these moths, I captured specimens at bate (sugary solution applied to trees) during the night, and then held them overnight in a refrigerator. The next morning the moths were color-marked with a paint daub on one forewing (in order that they might be more easily found later), and then released into a local woodlot. One of these moths is the one you see here - a White Underwing (Catocala relicta).

When this moth was released, it flew about rather eratically at first, and then its behavior suddenly changed. Now it seemed to be goal directed, as it flew in a straight line to the resting site you see here:

Can you see the moth at this distance?

C.relicta on birch scar/far

Now it is clear...

C.relicta on birch scar/close

... and now very clear. Here you can easily see the lavender marking that was painted onto the moth earlier this morning.

C.relicta really big

Study Question: Why is the moth so visible? It seemed to select an appropriate tree, a paper birch (Betula papyrifera) which its forewings would normally match. But it landed on a large black patch! It seemed to recognize the tree from a distance (remember the directed flight), but what happened as it landed? Perhaps we should wait a few minutes and see if the moth moves?

Now, let's see, is the moth still there? No? Where has it gone?

C.relicta realligned onto cryptic spot/small

Oh, yes, now at this closer distance it is obvious!

C.relicta realligned onto cryptic spot/larger
original slides © 1995, T. D. Sargent

What does all of this suggest about the visual abilities of this moth? How does it finally end up in an appropriate site? Do you think that the moth has two different background recognition systems - one that operates from a distance, and one that operates after it comes to rest? How would you test those ideas?

Why does this moth always rest "head-up" on birch trees? Does this suggest some coevolution of morphology and behavior? What additional predictions might you make regarding the behavior of this White Underwing moth, or the behavior of its predators? Again, how would you test those predictions?

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