On the island of Madagascar there lives a large moth with a tongue long enough to make Gene Simmons green with envy. Its name? Xanthopan praedicta. Its business? Sucking the pollen out of a very long and skinny orchid.
This moth’s whole history is absurd. Charles Darwin predicted its existence when he first saw the shape of the Angraecum sesquipedale orchid (which apparently prompted him to exclaim, “Good heavens, what insect can suck it?”). About 2 decades later, in 1903, the moth was actually discovered, and ever since, the Malagasy variant has been considered a subspecies of its mainland counterpart, X. morganii. But no longer.
Using a slew of morphological and genetic tests, scientists argue the island moth is substantially different enough from its mainland counterpart to merit its elevation to the species level, the Natural History Museum announced yesterday.
Working with a combination of wild moths and museum specimens, the team reports that DNA barcoding, a technique that can be used to identify organisms by looking at DNA sequence differences in the same gene or genes, shows the moth’s genetics differ by as much as 7.8% in key gene sequences, which actually makes the morganii moths more closely related to a few other mainland subspecies than praedicta.
But what about the tongues? The Malagasy moths take the prize here, with proboscises that measure 6.6 centimeters longer on average, as seen in the picture above. Adding to their legend, the team also reported finding one individual praedicta specimen with a proboscis that measured a whopping 28.5 centimeters when fully stretched, which would constitute “an absolute record” for any moth tongue ever measured. Congratulations!