A Feathery Facade

It may be hard to believe when you first look at it, but this is not a hummingbird. This is a hummingbird hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) from the Old World. It comes from the family Sphingidae, which contains the hawk moths, also called sphinx moths or hornworms. Unlike many moth species, this little one likes to be out during the day. Their hummingbird disguises are so superb that they even have tiny tails with markings on them and hold their legs against their bodies to make it appear as if they only have two. This is an excellent example of convergent evolution, in which unrelated species independently develop the same design or biological traits and fill the same niche.

Hummingbird hawk-moths feed on nectar like most other moths. Some other their favorite plants include butterfly bush, honeysuckle, foxgloves, and delphiniums. Just like hummingbirds, they hover by beating their wings with blinding speed and fly with extreme precision. The moth somehow knows not to visit the same flower twice in a row, as this would be an unnecessary expenditure of energy for nothing in return. How they keep track of which flowers they have gone to and which they have not isn’t currently known. Flying like they do takes so much energy that they must spend almost every minute feeding to replenish what they burn. Even while mating, the female moth may continue to feed.

Although it looks so bird-like in the air, the hummingbird hawk-moth looks very much like the moth that it is when perched.

The larvae, of course, are even less bird-like. It’s remarkable that this large grub turns into such a dainty and elegant little moth.

Hummingbird hawk-moths have relatively good vision and are able to recognize different colors quite well. Perhaps this is one of the ways they visit the individual flowers of a plant only once. They also have good navigation as they have been found to visit the same flower patches daily, similar to bees. Hummingbird hawk-moths like to fly most in bright sun, but they will also feed at dawn, dusk, and occasionally while it is raining.
So next time if you are somewhere in Southern Europe, Asia, or North Africa, find some flowers and watch them to see if you can get a glimpse of this beautiful little moth.

1. Jacinto, Valtar. “Macroglossum stellatarum” Encyclopedia of Life. Eol.org, n.d. Web. 25 June 2015. < http://eol.org/pages/396579/overview&gt;

2. Kelber, A. L. M. U. T. “Colour learning in the hawkmoth Macroglossum stellatarum.” The Journal of experimental biology 199.5 (1996): 1127-1131.

3. Kelber, Almut, and U. Henique. “Trichromatic colour vision in the hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum L.” Journal of Comparative Physiology A 184.5 (1999): 535-541.

Photo and Video Links:
1. http://cdn1.arkive.org/media/67/671D969C-EBD1-4A19-B7A7-32476CC56CAC/Presentation.Large/Hummingbird-hawkmoth-feeding-side-profile.jpg

2. http://www.jochemnet.de/fiu/BSC1011/BSC1011_2/sld007.htm

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87EPaLYVA88

4. http://www.azoresbioportal.angra.uac.pt/imagens/Imagenes/Novembro19//Macroglossum_stellatarum__a3.jpg

5. http://cdn2.arkive.org/media/B9/B93184FB-54D7-43EF-BCCF-A68653658C2D/Presentation.Large/Hummingbird-hawkmoth-caterpillar-dark-morph.jpg

6. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/IC_Macroglossum_stellatarum1_NR.jpg


4 thoughts on “A Feathery Facade

  1. So why this convergent adaption? If the energy expended to mimic a bird is so great that it can be replaced only by constant feeding, then there must be a powerful evolutionary incentive to go to such lengths. Probably to fool predators?


    • Its purpose isn’t to mimic a hummingbird. It just fills the hummingbird’s niche where it’s found so it has similar characteristics due to its physiology and behavior. Hummingbirds feed all the time too. Most nectar eaters do. Hovering like a hummingbird may be the most efficient way for this moth to drink nectar. It looks like a hummingbird because it’s body is built for that hovering flight.


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