Light, predation and the lekking behaviour of the ghost swift Hepialus humuli (L.) (Lepidoptera: Hepialidae)

  • Andersson S
  • Rydell J
  • Svensson M
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We examined the timing of the crepuscular lekking flight of male ghost swift moths in southern Sweden with respect to variations in: (i) the quality of the visual mating signal; and (ii) the behaviour of potential vertebrate predators (mainly bats). The moths' display flights started ca. 57 min after sunset, and occurred during 20–30 min at incident light intensities between 10.0 and 2.0 lux. Owing to the falling and more shortwave ambient light after sunset, the brightness contrast between the moth wings and the background (grass) increased steeply at the time of display onset. The silvery white male wing colour thereby seems to maximize conspicuousness, and may be a secondary adaptation that facilitates visibility at low light intensities. The display timing itself is probably determined by other factors, possibly predation. By displaying only for a short period at dusk, the moths seem to avoid most birds, which normally do not forage at these light levels, and gleaning bats, which typically do not start to feed until the light intensity has fallen even further. Nevertheless, aerial-hawking bats were often (54% of the evenings, n = 22) seen at the leks, and one species (Eptesicus nilssonii) frequently fed on the displaying moths (22% of the moths observed, n = 83). H. humuli represents an ancient clade among the Lepidoptera. By restricting its sexual behaviour to a short time window at dusk, when predation risk may be minimized (but still high), it may to some extent compensate for the lack of sophisticated predator defence systems such as aposematic or mimetic coloration, manoeuvrable flight, and ultrasonic hearing, which predominate among the more recent Lepidopteran clades. However, the time window solution restricts the moths' activities considerably and the lack of defence still carries a considerable cost in terms of predation.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Bats
  • Echolocation
  • Spectral contrast
  • Vision

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  • S. Andersson

  • J. Rydell

  • M. G.E. Svensson

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