What’s black and white and…

Zebra stripes are a common theme in animal coloration — there are not just zebras, but zebra swallowtails (Protographium marcellus) and zebra longwings (Heliconius charithonia) — both butterflies; zebra beetles (Poecilesthus fasciatus) and zebra longhorns (Typocerus zebra) — both beetles; zebra clubtails (Stylurus scudderi) — a type of dragonfly; and zebra moths — specifically Conchylodes ovulalis, the zebra conchylodes moth.

Conchylodes ovulalis (zebra conchylodes moth) on window inside cabin in mature white oak forest.

The fact that these black/white striping patterns are so common throughout the animal/insect worlds clearly suggests they provide some benefit, but the benefit differs for different species. For example, the stripes of zebra swallowtail butterflies serve to confuse birds trying to follow them as they fly swiftly and erratically through the forest. The stripes of zebras are commonly believed to function in a similar manner, confusing predators while they run as a herd; however, researchers have recently learned that the stripes may actually provide more benefit in preventing attacks from biting flies by confusing their vision as they try to land on the animal. Zebra longwing butterflies, on the other hand, have noxious chemicals in their body and use their stripes to advertise the fact. For most insects lacking chemical protection, however — including the zebra conchylodes moth, we have little experimental data to go by and can only assume that the stripes somehow function in providing camouflage for the insect.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

2 thoughts on “What’s black and white and…

  1. So many of these patterns need to be observed under natural conditions. Schinia nundina (Goldenrod Flower Moth) is white and tan with a few blotchy dark markings. It sits on and in Goldenrod flowers where one would expect it to stand out from the golden blossoms. But it doesn’t. Rather the white sheen takes on the golden reflection of the flowers and the dark blotches look like shadows of individual florets.

  2. Ted, visiting your website after a long time, so glad to see you still writing! Its marvellous how common black-stripes-on-white is among insects, especially moths! I believed it merely was a selective preference, but you’re right, it must serve some purpose to ‘dissolve’ the shape of the insect from predators.


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