A newly discovered fossilized moth is providing scientists with some insight regarding how moths escaped deadly predators millions of years ago.
A new study suggests that moths appear blue in death would have been yellow-green when alive. The change in color may reflect an advance camouflage system used by moths millions of year ago.
The moths probably used their colors some 47 million years ago to blend in with leaves and grass while nesting, according to study researcher Maria McNamara, a paleobiologist and postdoctoral researcher at Yale University.
“They were probably using the color for the same kind of function,” Ms. McNamara said, “to hide themselves when they were resting, but as a warning signal when they were feeding.”
Scientists say the color of the months likely served to warn predators of their foul taste and toxicity. The fossilized moth is thought to have contained toxic cyanide. he moth is believed to be an extinct ancestor of modern-day forester moths, which possess a bright coloration that warns predators of their poisonous nature. Scientists say the bright colors found in the fossilized remains likely indicate the moth was poisonous.
Researchers also noted that the fossilized moth was diurnal, opposed to many of today’s moths, which are only active at night. The colors likely allowed the moths to blend in with their surroundings during the day. Other scientists have suggested that the bright hues could have been useful for courtship, camouflage, or communication — which is common among living moths of today.
The discovery was the result of work conducted by Ms. McNamara and her colleagues, which analyzed fossils of moths preserved in the Messel oil shale of west central Germany. The team determined the color of the moth using electron microscopy and other techniques.
The discovery could provide scientists with insight regarding the colors of a wide variety of long-extinct creatures, including birds, fishes, and other insects. The discovery may also shed light on color’s function and evolution, say scientists. Still, Ms. McNamara warned that direct comparisons between the fossilized moth and those of the present is likely a stretch.
“Biology is unpredictable. The moths may have been doing what their relatives are doing today, or they may have been doing something totally different,” she said.
The results of the discovery are published online today in the open-access journal PLoS Biology.