How death’s-head hawkmoths manage to fly straight for miles in the dark

The nocturnal insects appear to chart flight paths with the help of an internal compass

an ecologist releases a hawkmoth at dusk

Ecologists in Germany have revealed the secret navigational skills of the death’s-head hawkmoth (one shown being released after a tiny tracker was placed on its back). All it took was tagging and chasing the nocturnal insects with an airplane.

Christian Ziegler/Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Sitting alone in the cockpit of a small biplane, Martin Wikelski listens for the pings of a machine by his side. The sonic beacons help the ecologist stalk death’s-head hawkmoths (Acherontia atropos) fluttering across the dark skies above Konstanz, Germany — about 80 kilometers north of the Swiss Alps.

The moths, nicknamed for the skull-and-crossbones pattern on their backs, migrate thousands of kilometers between northern Africa and the Alps during the spring and fall. Many migratory insects go where the wind takes them, says Ring Carde, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside who is not a member of Wikelski’s team. Death’s-head hawkmoths appear to be anything but typical.

“When I follow them with a plane, I use very little gas,” says Wikelski, of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Munich. “That shows me that they are supposedly choosing directions or areas that are probably supported by a little bit of updraft.”

map showing the path Martin Wikelski in his plane as he tracked a death’s-head hawkmoth migrating south across the Alps from Germany
The purple line marks the path ecologist Martin Wikelski followed in his biplane as he tracked a death’s-head hawkmoth migrating south from Kostanz, Germany, into the Alps.Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

A new analysis of data collected from 14 death’s-head hawkmoths suggest that these insects indeed pilot themselves, possibly relying in part on an internal compass attuned to Earth’s magnetic field. The moths not only fly along a straight path, they also stay the course even when winds change, Wikelski and colleagues report August 11 in Science.

The findings could help predict how the moths’ flight paths might shift as the globe continues warming, Wikelski says. Like many animals, death’s-head hawkmoths will probably move north in search of cooler temperatures, he suspects.

To keep tabs on the moths, Wikelski’s team glued radio transmitters to their backs, which is easier to do than one might expect. “Death’s-head hawkmoths are totally cool,” Wikelski says. They’re also huge. Weighing as much as three jellybeans, the moths are the largest in Europe. That makes attaching the tiny tags a cinch, though the moths don’t like it very much. “They talk to you, they shout at you a little bit,” he says.

close-up image of a death’s-head hawkmoth as a researcher places a tracker on its back
Researchers tracked death’s-head hawkmoths like this one by gluing radio transmitters to the insects’ backs. Weighing less than 0.2 grams, the transmitters are an easy lift for the giant moths, which can weigh up to 3.5 grams.Christian Ziegler/Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Once the researchers set the newly tagged and slightly annoyed moths free, Wikelski took off after them in a plane. As the insects flew south toward the Alps, a device onboard pinged the transmitters at a frequency related to the moths’ distance from the plane.

While detailed tracking of eight of the moths allowed him to follow the insects for about 63 kilometers on average, he pursued one for just under 90 kilometers. That’s the longest distance that an insect has been continuously tracked, he says. “It’s outrageously crazy work,” he says of the night flights at low altitude. “It’s also a little dangerous and it’s just showing it’s possible.”

About Anil Oza

Anil Oza was the summer 2022 science writing intern at Science News. He graduated from Cornell University with a degree in neurobiology and science communication.

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