Sweater-eating moths are an unbeatable enemy

By Katherine J. Wu | The Atlantic |

THE ATLANTIC - Every year, beginning around the end of March, my household starts planning a massacre. Our targets are our home’s clothes moths: My spouse and I lay pheromone-laced traps in the closets, living room, and bedrooms; we—and our two cats—go on alert for any stray speckle of brown on a cream-colored wall. The moment we spy an insect, we’ll do whatever we can to crush it. After killing dozens upon dozens, my husband and I can now snatch moths straight out of the air.

Clothes moths and their relatives, though, managed to evolve a way to capitalize on that opportunity, as Novick and other researchers have found. In their larval state, the moths manufacture enzymes and digestive juices that may help them break down keratin; they also appear to host gut microbes that dissolve substances that animal bodies cannot. For some species, that means feeding on horns, hooves, or tortoiseshells. Others, though, including the two clothes-moth species most commonly found in human homes, are far less picky about where their keratin comes from. Which is unfortunate for us, because the average home is full of the protein, Dong-Hwan Choe, an entomologist at UC Riverside, told me.

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