Bella Moths Protect Themselves from Predators with Toxins Derived From the Plants They Eat

(Credit: Andrei Sourakov)

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are as bitter and toxic as they are hard to pronounce. They’re produced by several different types of plants and are among the leading causes of accidental death in cattle. Plants that contain these alkaloids have made it very clear they don’t want to be consumed, but that hasn’t deterred bella moths (Utetheisa ornatrix). These day-flying moths exclusively eat the alkaloid-laden leaves and seeds of rattlebox plants. They then use the toxin to guard their eggs and deter predators in later life stages. They even use it to make pheromones that attract mates. Exactly how bella moths and related species evolved the ability to safely consume pyrrolizidine alkaloids remains unknown.

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