It is less than 10mm long, but the aptly named enigma moth was recently discovered on Kangaroo Island.

It is less than 10mm long, but the aptly named enigma moth was recently discovered on Kangaroo Island.Australia.. Photo: Leigh Henningham

A newly discovered species of moth that is so primitive it is being described as a living dinosaur has prompted scientists to redraw the insect’s family tree.

Only found on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the tiny ‘enigma’ moth represents an entire new family of primitive moths, which has helped entomologists better understand the world of moth and butterfly evolution.

Published in the journal Systematic Entomology, results of DNA analysis of the enigma moth conducted in Europe suggests that moth and butterfly evolution is far more complex than previously thought.

For a start CSIRO honorary fellow and moth specialist Ted Edwards said the results showed that tongues evolved in moths and butterflies more than once. Although this primitive moth doesn’t have a tongue, its earlier ancestors did.

“This moth demonstrated that the development of the musculature in the tongue of moths didn’t just happen once, it happened independently twice,” Dr Edwards said.

He said the enigma moth retained many other structural features associated with primitive moth species which lived 40 to 50 million years ago, including the wing mechanism.

“It’s really quite remarkable because it means that that ancestral line has continued right through without changing a lot of its basic structures,” he said.

It’s the first time since the 1970s that a new family of primitive moths has been identified.

The moth was first found on Kangaroo Island in 2009 by local scientist Richard Glatz but it was a few years before he contacted Dr Edwards for advice.

Dr Edwards said he knew straight away that he was looking at something “totally exceptional”.

Dr Glanz said he found the moths on cypress pine trees in a remote river valley near sand dunes. More specimens were collected in 2012 and 2013 before the moth could be confirmed as a new species.

With a wingspan no larger than a five cent piece the enigma moth is small – with a lifespan to match. Its wings shine gold and purple and have delicate fringed edges.

The adult moths are short-lived. In just one day they emerge from their cocoons, mate, females lay their eggs, and then die.

The moth has been named Aenigmatinea glatzella – in honour of Dr Glatz.

The name appeals to Dr Edwards, who pointed out that in German ‘Glatze’ means bald. One of the features of the moth is that its head is sparsely covered by scales.

Conservative estimates suggest Australia is home to about 22,000 species of moths and butterflies, only half of which have been named.

Henry Sapiecha


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