March Madness is a great time to take a look at rankings, tiers, and analyze favorites of objects (such as basketball sports teams). This month though, instead of examining sports, I will be looking at an analyzing moths (who doesn’t love good alliteration) as part of the #MarchMothMadness art challenge.

This art challenge was created by Sue Fields and Kate Hicks on instagram for artists to join in, learning about the incredible biodiversity of moth species found all over the world and to highlight the role that moths play in our ecosystems. So many artists participate in these art challenges, and getting to see what other artists create is a great way to see how people’s perspectives and creative outlets can spark conversations about biodiversity, habitat loss, and wildlife conservation.

Below are some of my March Moth Madness illustrations, and some facts about the species that I got to learn about during this month. 

comet moth for march moth madness

Comet Moth (Argema mittrei)

This moth won the all out March Moth Madness on social media (see below).

This moth, also called the Madagascar Moon Moth, is easily recognizable with its vibrant yellow color, eye spots, and long, fluttering tails. They are excellent examples of why it’s important for insects to have tails. These tails act as defense mechanisms. They confuse bats, who rely on echolocation to hunt, and if a bird or bat were to catch a tail, the tail can break off, leaving the rest of the moth intact and safe – living for another day with the hope of mating and laying eggs! 

The adults can’t eat anymore, so they just reproduce after emerging from their cocoon. The males fly around in search of females, who often sit still under cover and wait. Since the males have to travel more, they have much longer tails than the females. The males also have much larger and more feathery antennae than the female, and these antennae help them to detect pheromones – letting them search for females easily!

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss (roughly 90% of Madagascar forests are negatively impacted), it is believed that their populations are decreasing. Protecting areas of biodiversity, such as islands, is so important!

Death’s Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos)

Named for the skull-shaped splotch on its back, one might think that it’s a creepy sort of moth at first. Really, these are gentle moths that utilize potato and other Solanum plants as food sources. In fact, it is often thought to be a scaredy-cat itself! When alarmed, the moth can produce a little grating scream to scare potential predators away. Similarly to how a saxophone reed vibrates to produce noise, the moth vibrates their proboscis to squeal. 

Io Moth (Automeris io)

Unlike the Comet Moth, the Io is currently at low risk of population decline! One of the benefits of not living on an island is that movement to adapt to changing climates and habitats is much easier. These moths, similarly to the Comet moth as well, do not eat as adults, and their caterpillar host plants are rather commonplace in the United States. The adults lay their eggs on Hackberry, Redbuds, Pears, and Willow trees, as well as on blackberry canes. Many of these are commonly cultivated trees, and can be found even in urban and suburban residential areas, meaning that the impact of development and habitat fragmentation do not impact the moth population as much as it could in other regions. 

Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)

cinnabar moth for march moth madness

This vibrant moth is a prime example of why introducing new species for the sole reason of managing other introduced species is a bad idea. The Cinnabar moth was introduced to western United States as a way to manage the growing ragwort population. The caterpillars of the moth were supposed to eat away and balance the aggressive ragwort plant, however it is difficult to control where animals move and feed at. The caterpillars found that many other plants in its new habitat were much tastier, and started feeding aggressively on native plants. Now, the United States contends with the ragwort AND the Cinnabar moth! This moth has spread throughout much of the United States, but is still missing in some regions. 

Despite its invasive nature, it is such a beautiful animal with its striking coloration (Pokemon nerds unite – we learned what Cinnabar meant at young ages as our characters traveled to Cinnabar Island, named after the reddish color). I would love to see it, but in its native habitat where it benefits the community. In the United Kingdom, it feeds on Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea – see the similarity in the scientific names of the food source and the moth?) and manages the populations of the plants without being destructive. 

sheep moth for march moth madness

Sheep Moth (Hemileuca eglanterina sub. shastaensis)

While this moth is native to North America, it is primarily found in the western portion where its host plants grow easily. The Sheep moth caterpillars are less generalist than the Io moth, so they need more specific host plants, which may not grow all over the incredibly diverse ecosystems found within the United States. They love mountainous plants, such as the Mountain lilac, Mountain mahogany, Bitter Cherry, Snowberry, and currants. While these plants can be cultivated in the eastern United States, the plants require more care and are less suited to the soil conditions, summer droughts, heat, and humidity. Without stable populations of host plants, the moths cannot survive.

In fact, this moth is so particular with it’s region that there are some subspecies. The subspecies illustrated here (with pink and not just yellow or pale-orange wings) is only found in northern California and southern Oregon.

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)

This moth won the bracket for Native North American Moths on social media (see below).

While other moths here have been named for their coloration, fuzzy appearance, or long, comet-like tails, this one was named after a character from Greek mythology. Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon and was a cyclops who had a giant eye in the middle of his forehead (he’s the cyclops that gets blinded by Odysseus). The large eye spots on this already large moth (its wingspan can be 6” wide) have earned its common name.

These are the most generalist species out of all of the moths listed here. They feed on over 50 plant species, many of which are very commonplace in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Even though habitat destruction may not be a leading threat, light pollution does impact them. These moths are attracted to lights, so at night, when they should be out mating, they are drawn to light sources, wasting their energy before they get a chance to mate and lay eggs. By turning off lights at night, we can make a positive impact on the beautiful Polyphemus moth and many other animals. 

March Moth Madness Rankings

I asked my social media followers to rank these moths for March Moth Madness, ranking the Native Vs. Exotic Species. Take a look at who won out! Do you agree with this ranking? Which are your favorite moths here?

Go Mad for Moths!

Overall, what I learned from this is just how gorgeous and stunning moths can be! While some previously drawn moths (Rosy Maple, Hummingbird, and Luna moths) have been vibrant and colorful, I hadn’t really observed exotic moth species. The beauty that various species exhibit is breathtaking and really solidifies the importance of protecting all species.

Celebrate moths with some of my moth merch! 

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