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Yucca moths play an important role in the survival of yucca plants. Without the yucca moth, the yucca plant would lose its only pollinator, and without the plant, the moth would lose its food source. Each depends on the other for survival. Most yucca moths have white wings to blend in with the creamy blossoms of the yucca plants they pollinate. As caterpillars, they are reddish-pink and pudgy with no distinct patterns.
Yucca moths are native to the Southwest, but their range has expanded north and east with yucca plants. The key component of yucca moth habitat is the occurrence of yucca plants. In the Southwest, one of their most iconic partners is the Joshua tree. Birds and bats are common predators of yucca moths.
Adult yucca moths don’t live very long and therefore don’t need to feed. Caterpillars feed on yucca seeds.
Male and female yucca moths mate in the spring. Once they’ve mated, the male’s life cycle is complete, but the female must prepare to lay her eggs. A female moth visits the flowers of a yucca plant and removes pollen from the plant’s anthers. She uses special tentacles around her mouth to carry the clump of pollen to another flower on a different plant. After assuring that no other females have visited the flower, she deposits the pollen on the flower’s stigma, which fertilizes it. With this work done, she lays her eggs in the flower. When the eggs hatch, the fertilized flowers will have produced seeds and fruit for the caterpillars to eat. The caterpillars retreat to the soil to cocoon over winter, and the remaining uneaten plant seeds are dispersed by rodents. The yucca moth life cycle spans one year, but most of this is spent in the pupal stage underground.
Yucca moths are stable. They are specialist species, meaning they do one thing and do it well. Without yucca plants, they would have no host plants and would not survive. Therefore, conserving yucca plants in their native range is the key to the survival of yucca moths.
Yucca moths rarely lay eggs in flowers that other females have already used. If they did, too many caterpillars would hatch inside one flower, and there wouldn’t be enough food for all of them.
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center
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United States Geological Survey
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