The poplar hawkmoth (Laothoe populi) derives its name from the tree species on which it depends for survival. Females lay their eggs on the underside of poplar leaves in the spring. After emerging, the yellow-green larvae then feed on, and blend in with, the young, tender host leaves. By fall, when the moths have transformed into adults, their pale brown wings—which can span nearly four inches—blend into the dried bunches of poplar leaves that rustle around them.

But the subtle hues hide a surprise. Tucked beneath the overlap of the leaf-like front and back wings is a brilliant rust-colored spot, which scientists think functions to startle or distract hungry predators long enough for the moth to make its escape. While the hawkmoth has to avoid being eaten, it doesn’t waste time looking for its own meals. In fact, the adult lacks mouth parts altogether, so eating is impossible. Instead, it focuses on the singular purpose of its short life: reproduction.

“This head-on portrait of a male poplar hawkmoth reveals his big bushy antennae, packed with chemoreceptors to help him track down the distinctive pheromone signals given off by a female,” says photographer Alex Hyde. Each of the hairs on the antennae is covered with pores that sense chemicals in the air and send messages to the moth’s brain. Males’ featherlike antennae have far more hairs than females’—in some species, five times as many. This increased surface area gives the males a better chance of smelling the faint chemical signature of a female wafting on the breeze, which is important since it’s up to the males to find mates.

The poplar hawkmoth is common throughout the United Kingdom, including in Hyde’s Derbyshire backyard, where he found this one resting one morning after its flurry of nighttime activity.

Derbyshire, England

Alex Hyde

Alex Hyde is a freelance natural history photographer. Whether in a tropical rainforest or his own back garden, he specializes in the smaller organisms that are so often overlooked. He is based in the Peak District National Park, UK and runs tours and workshops on macro photography.

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