Epicopeiidae — “Mock swallowtail butterfly moths”


Epicopeiidae in the wild
The Epicopeiidae, or the mock swallowtail butterfly moths, is a small but very unique family of moths with about 30 known species. They are only found in the palearctic and oriental parts of Asia, and small parts of Russia. This obscure and small family of moths belongs to the Geometroidea and shares an evolutionary relationship with Uraniidae, Geometridae, Pseudobistonidae and  Sematuridae.  Most famous is genus Epicopeia that contains moths that  are very convincing Müllerian mimics of certain types of swallowtail butterflies in the genus Papilio, Byasa or Atrophaneura (Papilionidae) by appearance. These could certainly even confuse experts at first glance, and have given them the common name of “mock swallowtail butterfly moths”. Some other species are known to mimic other types of unedible butterflies and moths from the families Pieridae or Erebidae – Arctiinae; their wings patterns are often involved in complex mimicry rings and they serve as moth mimic and model for other butterflies and moths. The adults of Epicopeiidae are generally very colourful and active during the day. They have a functioning proboscis and can be seen visiting flowers for their nectar. The ecology of Epicopeiidae is a mystery for the biggest part, and many species within this family remain poorly studied; new species are still being discovered and their early life stages are not well recorded. It has been suggested that most Epicopeiidae sequester toxins from their host plants and are thus unedible to many predators. This explains their conspicuous bright colours, that make these diurnal moths quite noticable.

A unique feature of the Epicopeiidae are the wax producing larvae. The caterpillars have glands that produce wax continously, and over time it envelops their entire bodies. This gives them an appearance similar to wooly aphids, mealybugs or scale insects. This big thick wax layer possibly protects their bodies from attacks of several types of predators and parasites, and also makes them hydrophobic and thus more resistant to precipitation. Possibly because the exact function of the wax has not been confirmed by science. Another advantage that their waxy appearance may grant them is that it resembles the appearance of many other wax producing insects such as wooly aphids, mealybugs, scale insects and more, and some predators may avoid them for that reason.

Epicopeiidae in captivity
In captivity, Epicopeiidae have rarely or never been bred, despite their spectacular appearance and ecology. A handful of species have also been proven to be nearly unbreedable, due to their specific requirements and their general ‘pickiness’: some species refuse to lay eggs on anything except their preferred specific and hard to obtain food plants, and are also very selective in regards to host plant vitality and leaf quality. However, other species have proven to be more ‘open minded’ and have been bred in captive reproduction experiments, and even proved to be easy to breed. Breeding them is pioneer work in many regards.

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2019); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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