Photo: Shipher Wu/Flickr
Strange scenes and detailed patterns
At first glance, the wings of the Macrocilix maia moth may seem an unimpressive splotch of color. But a closer look reveals that these wings include an elaborate scene with an intriguing purpose. The Rorschach-like splashes of color on the upper wings are meant to resemble flies making their way to the lower wings to feed on bird droppings. Top off the scene with a pungent smell, and this moth seems a lot less interesting to predators.
There are similar stories behind the decorative wings of many other species of moths and butterflies. Whether they're trying to look toxic, confuse predators, or blend into their environment, it's clear that these insects aren't merely flashy for the sake of fashion. Here are some of the most impressive wings in the order Lepidoptera:
Photo: Swallowtail Garden Seeds/Flickr
Orange oakleaf, aka. dead leaf butterfly
From the leaf shape and tiny veins right down to the broken edges, the dead leaf butterfly is one of the most impressive mimics. It lives in the tropics of Asia, where its brightly colored wings fit in with the other flashy animals, but the underside of its wings offers the true evolutionary advantage. These butterflies can vary in size, shape and coloration depending on whether it's the dry season or the wet season.
Photographer John Horstman describes this moth in the genus Siamusotima as resembling the recently discovered Lygodium spider moth. Both moth species have a pattern of spider legs on their wings — coupled with that angry stare, he's practically daring predators to come at him.
Grey hairstreak butterfly
With antennae-shaped tails, this tricky butterfly pretends to have two heads. Seen above in its usual upside-down stance, the dummy head is meant to fool predators. When a bird sees the false head and swoops in for the attack, the grey hairstreak butterfly can keep its eye on an exit strategy.
Euchromia polymena screams "back off!" with its bold colors and striking resemblance to a wasp. Its body is shaped to look like the stinging insects. Other wasp-mimicking species have less elaborate, clear or dark-colored wings that may dupe us into thinking they're wasps, but this species is by far the fanciest.
Hummingbird clearwing moth
A phenomenal example of mimicry, the hummingbird clearwing moth has this tiny bird down to a T, from the green thorax to the flared tail. This moth's wings are even colored ruby red, shaped to mirror the rapid and graceful flutter of the tiny, nectar-drinking bird. With a range from Alaska to Maine to Florida, it's quite possible you've been tricked by this moth!
Snowberry clearwing moth
A cousin of the hummingbird clearwing, the snowberry clearwing is a dead ringer for a bumblebee. This fortuitous photo captured by John Flannery shows the two feeding off the same plant, and as you can tell, everything from the fuzzy thorax to the translucent wings says bumblebee. This clever imposter lives in Canada and the United States and can be seen hovering around honeysuckle, cherry, plum and snowberry plants.
Photo: Vipin Baliga/Flickr
With a wingspan that can reach almost a foot in length, this is considered the biggest moth on Earth — but the atlas moth doesn't stop there to ensure its safety. This huge, tropical moth of Southeast Asia has some peculiar decorations on its wings. Take a closer look at the border on the outer edge of the wings, all the way up to the tips. What does it look like to you? The Cantonese name for this moth actually translates to "snake's head moth." When the atlas moth moves its wings, it resembles a writhing snake.
Photo: Reinhard Burkl/Flickr
Giant owl butterfly
It almost looks as though an owl is peeking out from behind the tree! Owl butterflies have fascinating underwings that feature pairs of eyes, ranging from an almost comical eyebrow raise to a menacing glare. While the owl butterflies obviously resemble the bird of prey for which they are named, some scientists also argue that the design resembles the sideways glance of an amphibian.
Photo: Oscar Rasson/Flickr
White plume moth
The eerie, wispy wings of the plume moth resemble the long white feathers of an egret. This European moth takes to the low grassy fields of Britain in the summer months, flying like a little ghost after sunset.
Only a dozen millimeters in length, this many-plumed moth appears to have the wings of a miniscule bird. Unlike its pale cousin, this moth hides in plain sight year-round in the U.S. and throughout Europe.
Two-tailed pasha butterfly, aka. foxy emperor
Here's a stunner for you: the two-tailed pasha butterfly has starkly different patterns on each side of its wings and can take on different appearances depending on the angle of observation.
"From one angle it looks like a bird with a gaping beak, while from another it looks like a caterpillar with a spiny head," entomologist Philip Howse told The Telegraph. "The last one it looks like a grasshopper resting on bark."
This butterfly of many faces lives throughout Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe.
One of the most beautiful moths, the io moth's wings are notable because of the stark eye-like decorations that have 3-D qualities. It's easy to get lost in the eyespots of the moths in the genus Automeris, as they appear to contain a tiny star cluster. We end on this entrancing note — but we would love to hear about your favorite moth and butterfly wing patterns in the comments below!