Aug. 27, 2012 at 6:10 PM ET
It's been compared to a fluffy dog, a Pokemon character and a Power Rangers villain — but whatever it is, the Venezuelan poodle moth has captured the Internet like Mothra in a bad Japanese movie. Now it's up to the experts to figure out exactly where this moth belongs on the tree of life.
The first thing to emphasize is that the poodle moth is no phony concoction like the jackalope, dogerpillar or chupacabra. Its cute, furry, scary look is totally in line with what's expected for a neotropical ornamental moth. In fact, cryptozoologist Karl Shuker found a similar picture of a white, fuzzy critter known as Diaphora mendica, or muslin moth, a member of the lepidopteran family Arctiidae.
The Venezuelan poodle moth is even more bizarre-looking than your run-of-the-mill muslin moth. That's largely due to the details that zoologist Arthur Anker of Brazil's Federal University of Ceara captured in the photograph he took in the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela's Canaima National Park several years ago.
The nearly head-on perspective, without any sense of size scale, led my colleague Rosa Golijan to compare the bug to a Power Rangers villain — for example, Finster, the loyal servant of Rita Repulsa. However, if this showy critter is indeed a neotropical relative of the muslin moth, it's much more benign: Such moths feed on herbaceous plants and cause little trouble. They're also relatively small: The muslin moth's wingspan amounts to little more than an inch (28 to 38 millimeters, according to the UKmoths website).
Shuker would love to nail down the flying poodle's precise species name: "Is it indeed a member of Arctiidae, or are its taxonomic affinities elsewhere? Could it even be a species still undescribed by science? Thousands of new insects are discovered every year in the South American rain forests, so it would be by no means unusual if Art's Venezuelan poodle moth proved to be one, too," he wrote on the ShukerNature blog.
The fact that there are so many types of moths in the Arctiidae family — an estimated 11,000 species around the world, including 6,000 known species in the neotropical region — would make it tricky to classify this particular insect, unless there's an actual specimen in hand that can be sampled for genetic analysis. Nevertheless, we've put out our own inquiries with lepidopterists, and if we hear anything back on the bizarre case of the Venezuelan poodle moth, we'll let you know in an update.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.