(This is a collaborative post with Gil Wizen, who took all the photos, ID’ed this marvelous beast, and tracked down all the natural history facts, Thanks Gil!)
This adorable animal resides in the Belizean Rainforest and goes by the name of Periphoba arcaei, although we’ve of course been calling it the bunny moth. Those fuzzy legs are just so cute. After being undisturbed for a few minutes it would do the endearing little snuggle-down dance shown above. Presumably this behavior of shimmying down flat to the ground makes a lower profile and aids in camouflage (more on camouflage below).
We found this animal at a recent BugShot insect photography course. A group of us eager insect photographers were admiring and photographing arthropods in a cabana late into the night. Here, perched immediately adjacent to dense rainforest, amazing insects just appear. They swirl toward the lights and into the gaze of us entomology geeks—straight off planes from temperate habitats and enthralled by the wondrous animals begging to be studied and photographed. We were all kids dropped off at an all-you-can-eat candy buffet for the week.
So we were all entranced on our current arthropod of choice when Gil enthusiastically summoned us over to check out a moth. It was large and in the family Saturniidae. The most well-known and recognized moths in this family are big, colorful, and display large eyespots on their wings to startle predators, see here and here. But our bunny moth, like many other Saturniids, is cryptic. Can you spot it on the stone floor?
The subtle brown, grey, and reddish coloration is likely an adaption to provide camouflage against tree bark or leaf litter.
If the camouflage fails, Periphoba arcaei has second trick. If threatened by a potential predator our cute fuzzy bunny transforms into a scary black and orange beast—showing aposematic colors as a warning to back off
And this may be a legitimate warning. Other species of moths from the same group (Hemileucinae) also have this behavior coupled by the release of a strong odor, which can be very effective against predatory ants (as mentioned in Miller et al. 2007. 100 Butterflies and Moths: Portraits from the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica). We didn’t notice any smell from this individual, but humans out photographing insects in the rainforest tend to be pretty smelly themselves, so we might have masked it :) Moths obtain the chemical defenses during larval stages by sequestering compounds from the toxic plants they eat, such as Araceae and Heliconia species. One last natural history fact, the caterpillar of our bunny moth is also known to have extremely painful urticating spines covering its body.
It was the cuteness that captured us initially, but it seems our adorable initial impression do not much represent the essence of this animal—behind that fuzzy face are some gnarly defenses. This is a good lesson: for every arthropod you find, be it ahhhh-worthy or not, there is a complex and interesting natural history story to go with it. It shouldn’t take a cute face and an enticing dance to motivate us to seek that story out, but it sure helps :)
*Bonus update* Here is an animated gif of the bunny moth snuggle: