A moth that disguises itself as a bee and was previously only identified by a single damaged specimen collected in 1887 has been rediscovered in the Malaysian rainforest by a lepidopterist from Poland, The Guardian reports.
The oriental blue clearwing (Heterosphecia tawonoides) was seen “mud-puddling” – collecting salts and minerals from damp areas with its tongue-like proboscis – on the banks of a river in Malaysia’s lowland rainforest, one of the most wildlife-rich – and threatened – regions on Earth.
Four individuals of the rare moth, which shines strikingly blue in sunshine, were collected for genetic analysis and examination of their genitalia, which confirmed that the specimens belonged to this “lost species”.
The 1887 specimen was collected in Indonesia but Marta Skowron Volponi of the University of Gdańsk rediscovered the species when she saw a flash of brilliant blue on the banks of unpolluted rivers flowing through lowland rainforest on the Peninsula Malaysia.
On three field trips in 2013, 2016 and 2017, Skowron Volponi and her co-author and husband, filmmaker Paolo Volponi, observed and filmed just 12 individuals, suggesting the elusive moth is extremely rare.
In a paper for Tropical Conservation Science, Skowron Volponi described how the oriental blue clearwing was the only moth or butterfly seen mud-puddling among the bees it mimicked.
The oriental blue clearwing finds security in being a generalised mimic of a number of bee species, with its strikingly shiny blue colours similar to many species of bee found in Malaysia. The moth was seen picking up salts at the same puddle as a bee species which also has blue light-reflecting bands on its abdomen.
While the moth moved from puddle to puddle with groups of bees, other butterflies kept their distance from the bees.
The moth also landed on a person’s skin, and settled on a patch of sand smelling of rotten fish, suggesting it was searching not only for salt but also for proteins – a habit more usually associated with butterfly species.
The rare moth was found in a national park but was also seen in unprotected parts of the rainforest, which is highly endangered by development.
Malaysia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world – 14.4% between 2000 and 2012, during which its palm oil plantations doubled in size.
“These highly vulnerable ecosystems are vanishing rapidly,” warned Skowron Volponi in the paper. “Given the current rate of habitat loss and species extinction, it is of crucial importance to study and catalogue both species new to science and those that have been discovered many years ago and not seen since that time.”