Can the elongated hindwing tails of fluttering moths serve as false sonar targets to divert bat attacks?

The weak but persistent echoes from the hindwing tails of luna moths may help them confuse the sonar-guided bat predators, even though the tail echoes themselves are not strong enough to completely distract the bats' attention. (Photo by Wu-Jung Lee)


It has long been postulated that the elongated hindwing tails of many saturniid moths have evolved to create false sonar targets to divert the attack of echolocation-guided bat predators. However, rigorous echo-acoustic evidence to support this hypothesis has been lacking. In this study, fluttering luna moths (Actias luna), a species with elongated hindwing tails, were ensonified with frequency modulated chirp signals from all angles of orientation and across the wingbeat cycle. High-speed stereo videography was combined with pulse compression sonar processing to characterize the echo information available to foraging bats. Contrary to previous suggestions, the results show that the tail echoes are weak and do not dominate the sonar returns, compared to the large, planar wings and the moth body. However, the distinctive twisted morphology of the tails create persistent echoes across all angles of orientation, which may induce erroneous sonar target localization and disrupt accurate tracking by echolocating bats. These findings thus suggest a refinement of the false target hypothesis to emphasize sonar localization errors induced by the twisted tails, and highlight the importance of physics-based approaches to study the sensory information involved in the evolutionary arms race between moths and their bat predators.

Journal of the Acoustical Society of America