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Butterflies and Moths of the Atlantic Forest

23 June, 2016 - 16:58 -- World Land Trust
Walker's Moth (Sosxetra grata)

Moths and butterflies are a vital part of the forest ecosystem, as pollinators for flora and prey for fauna, but also for conservation.  There are more than 2,100 butterfly species in the Atlantic Forest region and their diversity and populations are monitored for landscape conservation as an indicator of environmental change. In this article World Land Trust (WLT) describes some of the diversity of Lepidoptera species recorded at Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu (REGUA), Brazil.

White Witch Moth (Thysania Agrippina)

Thysania agrippina

This mysterious moth, with the undulating ripple design of its wings and its mystical name, is the lepidopteran with the biggest recorded wingspan, averaging around 27-28cm wide.

Its name reportedly comes from its perceived immortality, as when early naturalists attempted to bring it down with shotguns it continued to sail through the sky unperturbed because the body was small relative to wing area.

Cramer's  88 Butterfly  (Diaethria clymena)

88 butterfly

The Cramer’s 88 butterfly is named and known for the distinctive markings on its hindwings, but is also part of a subfamily which have evolved a Vogel’s organ, a structure with the appearance and function of a tiny ear, at the base of the forewing.


King Swallowtail (Papilio thoas)

Papilio thoas

The King Swallowtail is a ‘hilltopping’ butterfly species, where the male butterflies aggregate on hilltops to display and attract females, similar to birds such as grouse lekking displays.

The males engage in ritualised flights and chases to indicate aggression to competing males and establish territories atop the hill which they will patrol repeatedly, flying close the ground. If a male successfully attracts a female, they fly away from the site and mating occurs elsewhere. 

Blistered emerald moth (Oospila includaria)

Oospila includaria

The wings of butterflies and moths are covered in tiny overlapping scales, which give rise to the name Lepidoptera (Scaly Wing in Ancient Greek). The green of the emerald moths’ wings comes from a pigment in the wing scales which is thought to be similar to the chlorophyll pigment which makes leaves green.

The scales also come in useful helping Lepidoptera to escape spider webs, as the scales are simply cast off onto the sticky spider silk, allowing the animal to slip free.

Silverking Butterfly (Archaeoprepona demophoon)

Archaeoprepona demophoon

Caterpillars are the perfect prey for a number of hungry predators, from birds to ants, as conspicuous chunks of protein fattening up for metamorphosis.

There is a wide array of caterpillar defences from toxic secretions, stinging spines, skin-irritating hairs and ornamentation to mimic lichen, bird droppings or even tarantulas. This Silverking caterpillar has developed eye-spots and an ‘alternate head’ to mimic a small snake, which it can rear up in defence.

Tiger moth (Idalus sp)

Tiger moth

Idalus moths are one of the tiger moths, which have developed acoustic defence against their main predator: bats. Many tiger moths produce high frequency clicks which interfere with bat’s echo-location.

There are several theories on how this works: from phantom echoes creating illusionary targets as a form of acoustic camouflage; direct interference with bat echo processing; or masking bat echoes in a cacophony of background noise.

Clearwing Butterfly (Melinaea ethra)

Melinaea ethra

This species of Clearwing Butterfly is particularly difficult to identify, as it is part of the ‘tiger mimicry ring’. A wide range of species have evolved to look alike, with similar black and orange markings.

Some of the butterflies with the tiger markings are poisonous or unpalatable, and mimic each other (Müllerian mimicry), whereas some palatable species (like this Clearwing butterfly) take advantage of birds that may have tasted a tiger-marked unpalatable species and learned to avoid them.

Owl butterfly (Caligo illioneus)

Caligo illioneus

The owl butterfly uses flash colouration as an anti-predation strategy, as one side of the wings show a cryptic brown pattern used to blend into bark and the other side is a bright sky blue. As this species display lekking behaviour similar to the King Swallowtail described above, the blue is likely to attract females and encourage species recognition at lekking sites with several butterfly species.

However, the contrasting tones may also confuse predators, as a bird following the blue wings in flight may lose sight of the butterfly once it lands and folds the blue behind the brown.


1.) Brown, K. S., & Freitas, A. V. L. (2000). Atlantic Forest Butterflies: Indicators for Landscape Conservation1. Biotropica, 32(4b), 934-956.

2.) David Cappaert, The search for the White Witch moth

3.) Barbosa, E. P., Kaminski, L. A., & Freitas, A. V. (2010). Immature stages of the butterfly Diaethria clymena janeira (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae: Biblidinae). Zoologia (Curitiba), 27(5), 696-702.

4.) Pinheiro, C. E. (1990). Territorial hilltopping behavior of three swallowtail butterflies (Lepidoptera, Papilionidae) in western Brazil. J. Res. Lep, 29, 134-142.

5.) Cook, M. A., Harwood, L. M., Scoble, M. J., & McGavin, G. C. (1994). The chemistry and systematic importance of the green wing pigment in emerald moths (Lepidopera: Geometridae, Geometrinae). Biochemical systematics and ecology, 22(1), 43-51.

6.) Dyer, H. G. L., & Smilanich, A. M. (2012). Feeding by lepidopteran larvae is dangerous: A review of caterpillars’ chemical, physiological, morphological, and behavioral defenses against natural enemies. ISJ, 9, 7-34.

7.) Corcoran, A. J., Conner, W. E., & Barber, J. R. (2010). Anti-bat tiger moth sounds: form and function. Curr Zool, 56(3), 358-369.

8.) Joron, M., & Mallet, J. L. (1998). Diversity in mimicry: paradox or paradigm?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 13(11), 461-466.

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