Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Guest blog post from Merrill Peterson, of Western Washington University and Carol Kaesuk Yoon, science writer for the New York Times, extolling the virtues of moths and the fantastic web resource, Pacific Northwest Moths,

We here in the Pacific Northwest are lucky for many reasons - towering Mount Rainier, schools of delicious salmon, summer harvests of raspberries - and, though not too many people know this, an abundance of beautiful and fascinating moth species. To help people study, better understand and enjoy these species, a group of lepidopterists (people who study butterflies and moths) worked for the last three years to create a new website called Pacific Northwest Moths. So far, there are just over 1,200 species on the site, with ultra high resolution photographs of each one (you can zoom in to see individual wing scales), range maps, detailed species accounts, and even an easy-to-use interactive identification key.

So what's in the region and on our site?

There are moths that hardly seem to be moths at all! Like many other insect species, some species of moths have evolved to look like much tougher, more intimidating and potentially dangerous insects, like wasps or bees. This Hemaris thetis is a bumblebee-mimicking moth that can be found in our region. This chubby clear-winged moth can be found hovering over flowers in broad daylight, sipping nectar. 

Others have evolved to look equally unattractive, but for different reasons - like the species that mimic bird poops, including Tarache knowltoni, which, when it is at rest with only the front wings showing, is easy to mistake for bird droppings.

Some moth species in the region are hard at work, attempting to do what human hands and tools have been unable to accomplish, for example, controlling invasive weeds. The weed known as Tansy Ragwort can be deadly to livestock, and can even harm humans when cattle eat the weed and produce contaminated milk. Tansy Ragwort even produces toxic pollen which can create tainted honey if it's anywhere within two miles of a hive. But this noxious weed is now being challenged by Tyria jacobaeae, a moth species whose caterpillars enjoy munching down this invasive species. 

In addition to having pictures of species of these species and more, the site has maps showing where and when they have been found. In this way, researchers can use the website to track and record any moth species that come within our region, including the odd stray tropical species that wanders up, like this Black Witch Moth. This impressively huge tropical species did exactly that this summer, turning up in July at Priest Lake, Idaho.

Because each species account shows all known sightings of a species, it gives everyone, including scientists, a chance to see how the fauna of our region has changed and continues to change over time. It also allows us to see phenomena such as the massive outbreaks of western tent caterpillar moths, Malacosoma californicum, such as have plagued Island and Whatcom Counties in Washington State this summer.

There are some groups of moths that are interesting, simply for their incredible diversity. For example, one group in our region that is very species-rich, and a real headache for taxonomists, is the genus Euxoa. If you look at the site, you'll find more than 120 species, many of which are extremely difficult to distinguish. 

Moths can also be very important as a food source to bats, birds, spiders, and even foraging bears. Take for example, one of our moth species known as the army cutworm moth or Euxoa auxiliaris. A study in Yellowstone found that grizzly bears eat aggregations of these moths in rock screes, where the bears sit and patiently turn over rock after rock to find the moths hidden on the underside. The moths turn out to be more energy-rich sources of food than blueberries, trout, nuts, or deer meat, and represent 34% of the bears' diet in late summer, when they are fattening up for winter. A single bear can eat up to 40,000 moths per day at their peak!

We envision Pacific Northwest Moths as not only a repository of data already known, but as a place where people can continue to report new sightings, a never-ending citizen science project that can help us understand the ever changing story of the moths of our region.


Mimi Lynde said...

The number of Scientist specializing in studying moths is, I'm guessing, pretty small and they aren't always in the field. Therefore, I think the idea of a "citizen science project," is a great way to use all the resources available in order to collect as much information possible as to the whereabouts of different species of moths. Also, to digress, wan't aware that tropical species of moths were able to travel so far, and I was wondering if they were able to survive in the environments provided by the Pacific Northwest for very long.

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