At this very moment a handful of remote-controlled cars is sending radio signals across the void of space in an attempt to help us learn about Mars. We know that it’s about half the size of Earth, we have learned that the average temperature is 64 degrees below zero and that Mars is a lot more like Earth than we ever suspected. But the big question remains, “is there (or was there) life on Mars?”
NASA has spent billions to answer this question. A simple speck of life would “change our lives forever.” But isn’t it strange that all of this is happening while we here on Earth are surrounded by more life than we know what to do with? Why is the possibility of life on Mars so much more interesting than the hundreds of millions of living things just outside our doors?
The outside story
So tonight (weather permitting) I want you to go out onto your porch, look up into the sky, and try to locate Mars. Do you know where to look, or when? Well it just so happens that you won’t be able to see the red planet until about 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. Even then Mars will just be a slightly brighter point of light in a sky filled with countless other points of light.
But if you turn on the porch light and stand there for just a moment you’ll find yourself in the company of a host of other living things. Odds are that you’ll be the only mammal and you’ll be surrounded by insects.
The most familiar of these will probably be the moths, but if you look at them closely you will discover that they are far from familiar. Don’t feel bad, however. Anyone would be a little lost while moth-watching, seeing as there are over 11,000 species of moths in North America.
If you take a close look at the moths by your porch light you will be in for a treat. Most have to hide during the day and their wings have evolved to help them do this. Moths hold their wings out to their sides in an effort to smooth out their profile and hide their main bodies from view. Think of a human in a flat tent and you’ve got the idea. Different species have evolved to mimic specific backgrounds, and when motionless they can be invisible.
When you consider how many different types of plants there are it is easy to see how there can be so many different moths. Each species lives a slightly different life, eating slightly different parts of slightly different plants. They each have their own “niche” and each species tries to blend in with some part of its surroundings.
Some look like dead leaves, others like living leaves, some look like a spot of lichen on tree bark, there is even one group of moths that specialize in looking like bird droppings.
Take a look at any moth and try to decide what background it is trying to imitate. Odds are that if you go out the next day, and look in that kind of place, you will find the very same moth sitting motionless and waiting for dark. This could make a great project for any family on a summer night.
Just make sure that you go out on warm, humid nights with little to no breeze. Those are the best conditions for moth-watching.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.