One of the pastimes at our family cottage near the Bruce Pensinsula National Park is wildlife photography. We’re not professionals by any means, and we don’t have the fancy gear needed to capture spectacular photographs of eagles in flight or big game animals at long range.
One class of animal that is not beyond our skills is insects. Some of the most beautiful of these are the moths and butterflies. They’re also easy to snap with a camera because they are pollinators, and they often sit still on attractive flowers with their wings spread wide. We also enjoy taking pictures of hummingbirds which are plentiful there. They migrate up in the warmest part of the summer. We have one of those trendy hummingbird feeders to draw them in.
One animal took us by surprise, though. It seemed like the strangest little critter we had ever seen. It behaved like a hummingbird but was awfully small. Hummingbirds are all tiny but this creature was even more minuscule.
The little fellow was pollinating flowers and it moved like a hummingbird. It had something like a long beak. It could hover and you could see through its wings. Its wings moved in a blur, and they even made a humming noise. Yet, no bird could be this small. Even so, the creature was too big to be some sort of bee.
We decided to shoot first and ask questions later. From the shots we took, we were able to find this animal using a field guide. I don’t mean a field guide to birds. We found it in a guide to insects. The species was the Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe). Some people call it the Clearwing Moth.
They are a species of Hawkmoth. Of course, we hadn’t discovered anything new to real ecologists. This species was first identified by Johan Christian Farbricius in 1775. A similar species of hummingbird moth was described by the famous Carl Linnaeus in 1758.
This prompted the kind of fireside chat one tends to have at cottages. How could such an animal have come to be? We knew it had to be by natural selection, of course. Still, why would an insect end up looking like a bird?
The answer is a process known as convergent evolution. That’s how ecologists describe the finding of two independent species having similar features. Another word is homoplasy, which means structures that look similar and do the same thing.
The two species are not identical. The moth has six legs like all insects. I mentioned that it has something like a beak, but we call it a proboscis. Unlike a beak, a proboscis curls up. All moths have something like it for nectar feeding. It also has antennae like other insects. Hummingbird moths have four wings while real hummingbirds have two.
Nature continues to amaze me. This is a mundane example of the remarkable phenomenon of biodiversity. It’s also a reminder that all ecosystems are interdependent. This tiny creature came to be because of the web of life. A mutual relationship grew up between flowers and hummingbirds. Flowers grow ever more attractive blooms. Hummingbirds feed on their nectar and spread their pollen. This is a win/win relationship.
Meanwhile, a humble moth stumbles into this interaction. Over time, moths that have the same forms as hummingbirds can also feed on the nectar. Those that have the same attraction to flowers are more successful. Eventually, a separate and independent species takes on all the forms and functions of an existing one. I find it mind boggling.
I’m also worried. I don’t know if future generations will be able to appreciate these diminutive enigmas the way my family has. Pollinators of all kinds are under threat. 75% of butterfly species have declining populations. Readers of Dare to Know will have heard about the loss of bee species around the world. We are also losing cicadas and beetles at an alarming rate. The Hummingbird Moth was an oddity to begin with. It faces the same threats as other pollinating insects.
This is part of a larger menace. The UN reported in May that species extinction is on the rise worldwide. Scientists are calling our era the sixth mass extinction in our planet’s history. Even worse, this extinction is happening faster than any of the others. We humans are the cause.
Our planet is losing biodiversity forever. Our minute friends are a classic example of the inter-relatedness of life. They could only exist inside an already established ecosystem where diverse plants and animals have a broad range of complex interactions. Their evolution and survival depends on everything around them.
You can make a difference. You can turn more of your lawn into gardens. Who wants to cut grass anyway? In fact, cutting your lawn less often also helps. You can plant a wide range of colourful local flowers in your garden. Stop using pesticides and have a source of water for insects on your property.
One person can’t do everything but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can.