Death’s-head hawkmoths fly over the Alps

In another astonishing revelation by scientists as to the abilities of animal species, Martin Wikelski from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in south-western Germany, has revealed that some species of Death’s-head hawkmoths migrate over the Alps or around them when they fly south. He describes this moth as “a truly amazing species”.

Death's-head hawkmoths fly over the alps
Death’s-head hawkmoth. Photo of moth by Howcheng (Wikipedia). Image: MikeB

He said that they are “real migrants”. They can be found in southern Europe and on their migration south they have to traverse the Alps or go around them. And then comes the long flight down through Italy. It is believed that they then fly across the Mediterranean to Africa. This species of moth can be found in Africa during the winter.

Wikelski tracked some individual moths on a significant part of the journey which was through or around the Alps. They did this by attaching a tiny tracker to the 3-gram insects. Wikelski flew alongside the moths as they began their epic journey south. He said that the moths acted like seafarers. They had good days for navigation and on other days they waited ‘in port’. He said that they used the winds like sailors and were choosy in how they directed their flight.

The moths did not act as he expected. He said: “On my instruments I can see the wind. We thought they would be blown off course by the wind and I tried to correct for that. But the moths were not blown off course despite the crosswinds because they kept on course possibly by fixing on a distant landmark as a reference point and having a rough internal compass”. They can certainly navigate effectively.

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The individual moths that flew over the Alps did so at a height of about 2,000 meters, appearing to use a low pass through the mountains. They traversed the Alps in one day as did those that went around the mountains.

The scientific name for the species of moth that crossed through the mountain pass is Lepidopteral Hannibal. Lepidopteral is an order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. It is an umbrella scientific name for 180,000 species.

Death's-head hawkmoth
Death’s-head hawkmoth. Photo by Howcheng (Wikipedia).

You can see that the scientific name includes “Hannibal”. Hannibal was a Carthaginian general and statesman regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in history. He crossed the Alps with his troops and elephants during the second Punic War (218-202 BC).

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