Lurking in the forests of Transylvania flies a strange and unsettling species of otherwise unremarkable moth, Calyptra thalictrii. Belonging to the widespread group of moths, the Noctuiidae, this species until recently lived as an adult on the juices sucked from fruit, like the other members of its genus. However, at some point it changed its diet, and now is known to feed on blood, even that of humans.
To be fair, there are other species of moth which also feed on blood, although feeding from the tears or sweat of mammals is far more common in lepidoptera – even in our own butterfly house the Glasswings will often land on people to feed on their sweat (this is especially true if they have been eating chips – they are attracted by the salt). The Asian Vampire Moth Calyptra eustrigata, even attacks elephants!
It is good to know that the vampire moth rarely attacks humans, and as far as is known only males have been observed feeding on blood. The reason for this difference between males and females is unclear, but in many species of butterfly and moth the males accumulate compounds from their food to be used as pheromones in courtship, so possibly something similar is happening here.
The caterpillar of the vampire moth feeds on meadow rue, Thalictrum, which is a very widespread European plant. I have not been able to find out anything about the flight season, which may vary with the location, but the related Calyptra canadensis from North America (including Canada) flies from July onwards and probably overwinters as an egg.
Until recently, vampire moths were restricted to south east Europe and further east, as far as Japan, but whether they feed on blood throughout their range is unclear. What is clear is that they have been spreading north and west in recent years, and have now reached Sweden and Finland. Given their distribution, I suspect the UK may not have the right climate (too wet) for a breeding population to establish itself here, but stranger things have happened. So if a moth suddenly starts paying attention to you – watch out!
The last of the parrots to cover in this series are the birds in our popular walk through exhibit, the Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus, of which we currently have over 40 in the walk-through in the centre of the zoo. The walk through opened last year and has proved very popular with visitors, although parents of small children should be warned that they are very noisy when coming down to feed from cups of nectar in the visitors hands, and small children can be scared if they are not expecting this.
Living in an aviary next door to our Chattering Lories is a pair of another beautiful species of nectar feeding parrot, the Blue-Streaked Lory Eos reticulata. Originating from islands in the Banda Sea west of Papua New Guinea, it is fairly numerous but may be threatened by deforestation, and is therefore classified by the IUCN as Near Threatened.
Tucked away in the far corner of the zoo is our pair of Yellow-Backed Chattering Lories, Lorius garullus flavopalliatus. They are well named – they are a highly vocal species.
There are about 6 species in the genus Lorius, each with several subspecies. The various forms range through Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, where they live in the canopy of primary and secondary (re-grown) rainforest> As with all lories the Chattering Lory is a specialist in feeding on nectar and pollen, although fruits, plant material, and insect larvae are also taken. To help them with their diet, the ends of their tongues are covered with projections, giving them the name “brush-tongues parrots”.
Just a brief interruption on the series on Bristol’s parrots to cover one of the plant collections we have here. Bristol holds two national collections as part of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (now renamed Plant Heritage), which is a gardeners organisation in the UK dedicated to the preservation, conservation, and research on garden plants. As part of its work, Plant Heritage regulates no less than 650 plant collections held by both public bodies like Bristol Zoo or Kew gardens, and also keen amateur gardeners. For more on the NCCPG see the link here: http://www.nccpg.com/