Animals are practically synonymous with memes, but it’s rare you get results that are both hilarious and scientifically accurate. But with the moth meme we may have finally found the perfect sweet-spot, a leading lepidopterist tells Inverse.
As you might expect from a social media savvy moth enthusiast, Chris Grinter was scrolling through one of the many insect meme Facebook groups he’s a member of when he stumbled upon Moth Lamp. The meme pokes fun of the critters’ fierce love affair with house lights. Grinter, the collection manager of entomology at the at the California Academy of Sciences, told Inverse he was most struck by the meme’s accuracy.
“I thought it was pretty funny and I was surprised that there even was a moth meme,” he said over the phone. “I didn’t realize it was as popular as it was because it seemed surprisingly accurate. Usually, the insect photos that aren’t actually entomology-themed memes do the best.”
There’s something endlessly hilarious about the bug’s romantic involvement with an inanimate object. But Grinter believes the mystery shrouding this meme also had a role in building its online acclaim.
There are a handful of theories about why moths are drawn to lanterns, but the driving force behind this lust for light has never been scientifically proven. Grinter says that’s mostly because it would be difficult to conduct an experiment. You might be able to figure out what’s going on in their brains, he theorized, by trapping them inside of an obstacle course and blasting them with various wavelengths of light to see how they react. But the payoff for such a difficult experiment isn’t quite there.
“It’s not a low hanging fruit of entomology, simply because it hasn’t been done before,” he explains. “It’s difficult to understand the behavior of an animal like this. Though it would be fairly easy to rule out some of those other hypotheses.”
Why We Think Moths Love Lamps
While he clarified that he couldn’t provide empirical evidence for this theory, Grint thinks there’s a chance that moths see light from your lamp as a seven-lane highway to Valhalla.
That’s because moths — like many other insects — see in the ultraviolet spectrum of light. And as it turns out, fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury vapor, which emits swathes of UV rays when jolted with electricity. These bursts of light could literally seem like the heavens opening up and beaconing moths to fly to its source as fast as possible.
“A bright light … when these nocturnal animals are flying isn’t something they’ve evolved to deal with,” he says. “To a moth, UV is as bright as day. Imagine something accustomed to flying through a dark forest seeing a lamp, it could look like a clear pathway. They’re potentially just being confused and overwhelmed by artificial light.”
Don’t follow the light little buddy, you will smash into that window.
Not All Moths Are Created Equal
This doesn’t mean all moths will risk their lives to get a dose of some of that sweet, sweet UV. There are more than 14,000 species of moths in the United States alone. And while many of these species are nocturnal — the Moth Lamp critter is likely part of the Noctuidae family or a cutworm moth — there are plenty of day-flying and even wingless moths that don’t love lamps.
Grint explained that a majority of these insects evolved to become nocturnal to avoid predators, like birds. Some species like the Tiger moth can even emit an ultrasonic screech to scary away any bats that want to mess with them. It’s almost like they’re yelling in the bats ears to throw them off guard.
And you know what they’re saying? Got any lamps?