New Research Puts The Spotlight On The Humble, Understudied Moth

Aug 11, 2016

 

A Virginian Tiger Moth hangs out on a thistle bush in Yardley, Pennsylvania. Ecologist Ryan Utz says moths are important pollinators and don't get the credit or study they deserve.
Credit Anita Gould / Flickr

Chatham University ecology professor Ryan Utz says a new moon—when the night sky is at its darkest—is a great time to observe moths in the summertime. And it doesn’t take any special technology to get a look at the diversity the moth world has to offer either.

Utz and his students recently set up a four-by-eight-foot white board at the edge of a field and then simply lit it on a dark night to attract some of the 1,500 species of moths that might pay a visit.

“Plenty of species we know very, very little about in terms of their ecology and their life history,” Utz says. “Moths are studied one tenth the amount of time people spend studying butterflies.”

Utz or a student is here every morning at 5 a.m. to photograph each moth they see on the board.

“Usually if you have an insect, you have to take it into the lab and look at several orders of magnification to even get the genus,” Utz says. “But here, we’re able to get the species just with an image like this.”

The photos are also uploaded to a national database that’s helping track moths across the U.S. and Central America.

“Understanding the ecology of these organisms is important—many moths are pollinators,” Utz says.

Moths also fill other important ecological niches. They eat decaying leaves in forests and are also a key food source for birds, bats and reptiles. Utz says he and others are now interested in understanding how climate change and development could be affecting moths.

To read more about moths and see more of the species Utz and his students have photographed, check out this website.

Find more of this report on the site of our partner, Allegheny Front