Moths in the genus Calyptra are sometimes known as vampire moths, a colorful name referring to the ability of at least some species to pierce mammalian flesh and feed on blood. Calyptra species have wingspans ranging from 35 to 72 mm. They are found in southern Europe, eastern Africa, sub-Himalayan southern Asia, Manchuria, and broadly throughout southeast Asia; a single species, Calyptra canadensis, is found in eastern North America (Covell 1984; Wagner 2005; Zaspel et al. 2007). The modified proboscis of these moths has strongly sclerotized erectile barbed hooks (at the distal end of the galeae) used for piercing both thick and hard-skinned fruits such as peaches, plums, and citrus fruits--and sometimes the skin of mammals (Büttiker et al. 1996 and references therein). It is likely that blood-feeding moths engage in this behavior facultatively, depending on regional availability of mammalian versus plant hosts. (Zaspel et al. 2007 and references therein)
Eight of the 17 to 19 described species have been reported to pierce mammalian skin under natural conditions: C. eustrigata (Hampson), C. minuticornis minuticornis (Guenée), C. orthograpta, (Butler), C. bicolor (Moore), C. fasciata (Moore), C. ophideroides (Guenée), C. parva Bänziger and C. pseudobicolor Bänziger (5 of these 8 have been known to pierce human skin) and two additional species (C. fletcheri and C. thalictri) have shown this behavior in experiments or under semi-natural conditions. (Zaspel et al. 2007 and references therein)
Zaspel et al. (2007) documented the first example of blood-feeding by Calyptra in a temperate region, by C. thalictri in Far Eastern Russia. Individuals from one site exhibited blood-feeding behavior in experimental trials while individuals from a second site did not. Such variation has been observed for other Calyptra species as well. (Zaspel et al. 2007 and references therein)
In subtropical and tropical Asia, Calyptra moths are considered facultative or opportunistic blood-feeders, typically feeding on ungulates (hoofed mammals) such as tapirs, rhinos, and cattle, and occasionally on elephants and humans. Interestingly, female Calyptra adults have not been documented feeding on blood. (Bänziger 1975; Zaspel et al. 2007 and references therein)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
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The genus Calyptra is a group of moths in subfamily Calpinae of the family Noctuidae. They are a member of the Calpini tribe. whose precise circumscription is uncertain but includes a number of other fruit-piercing or eye-frequenting genera currently classified in Calpinae.
The common name of many of these species, vampire moth, refers to the habit that they have of drinking blood from vertebrates. According to a recent study, some of them (C. thalictri) are even capable of drinking human blood through skin. However, the moths are not thought to cause any threat to humans.
Some species of this genus have been classified with genus name Calpe and they include more than one blood-sucker.
These insects have been changing their habitat in recent years. The species Calyptra thalictri was native to Malaysia, the Urals and Southern Europe, but is turning up in northern Europe. In 2000, they were observed in Finland and in 2008 they were seen further west in Sweden. The Swedish observation was in Skutskär north of the capital Stockholm whilst the sightings in Finland have been more numerous. It is found in southern Finland, in particular in the south east.
Insects piercing the skin of mammals is familiar in creatures such as mosquitoes, but the moth uses a specially developed proboscis to penetrate the skin of animals, such as buffalo. A species in Malaysia was observed using its hollowed out proboscis which is divided into two halves. The insect rocks the proboscis from one side to the other, applying pressure until it pierces the skin. It then uses a rocking head motion to drill the tube deeper into the skin. The blood pressure of the victim supplies power to raise hooks on the proboscis to ensure the insect is not easily detached. Only male moths exhibit this ability, unlike mosquitoes, where the female is the one that drinks blood.
It is thought that the moth's ability to pierce animal skin and drink blood may have sprung from an earlier ability to pierce fruit in search of juice. Human skin penetrated in this way may turn red and be sore for several hours. Despite the wound being more severe than that of a mosquito, the moths are not believed to pose a risk to human health.
Although it has been reported that moths have bitten humans in Asia, it was not until the summer of 1999 that a Russian scientist, Vladimir Kononenko, observed that this species of moth was capable of filling its stomach with human blood.
- Calpinae, in Wikispecies, accessed 20 October 2008
- article, epl.ee, Estonian, accessed 20 October 2008
- Picture of thumb being pierced Worlds weirdest moths, accessed 20 October 2008
- Vampire moth turns up in Sweden, Peter Vinthagen Simpson, The local, 29 July 2008, accessed 20 October 2008
- Vampire moth turns up in Finland, The Guardian, 4 June, 2007, accessed 20 October 2008
- Blood-sucking vampire moth becoming more common in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, 5 June 2007, accessed 20 October, 2008
- calyptra thalictri, leps.it, accessed 20 October, 2008
- Our Amazing World: Wonders hidden below the surface By Avrohom Katz, p, ISBN 0-89906-313-6, accessed 20 October 2008
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