Chatham University one of 20 sites in international data moth collection project
August 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Dawn comes over the Eden Hall campus of Chatham University, as Ryan Utz , assistant professor of water resources, looks at white board loaded with moths.
Catherine Giles of Washington, Pa., photographs and measures moths on the large white painted board.
A moth is attracted to the frequency of a black light .
A sphinx moth hangs onto the large white board.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At 5 a.m., ink isn’t as black as the edge of a particular meadow at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus in Richland. You need a flashlight to walk several yards from your car to the cluster of people under an LED light in a lean-to.
The wall of the lean-to is white-painted plywood, and it’s covered with at least a hundred moths — the bonanza of a new moon. A few flutter frantically around a black light, but the others lie still as if on exhibit.
In a few days, these moths already will have lived their lives, and another generation of eggs will hatch as larvae.
From the Eden Hall station, Ryan Utz, an assistant professor in the Falk School of Sustainability, and two of his students will record as many specimens as possible each day for the international biodiversity data-collecting encyclopedia, Discover Life.
Often, a person’s passion can strike others as odd, but those who get up before 5 a.m. every day to measure and photograph clustering moths are adding data about an order of insect that is both understudied and critical to understand.
Mr. Utz and students Catherine Giles and Casey Hausner, aided by one or two volunteers, joined the study last fall. Mr. Utz said he was inspired after hearing a talk by Discover Life’s founder, John Pickering.
Mr. Pickering, a retired biology professor at the University of Georgia, founded Discover Life in 1997 and has established a network of scientific organizations, scientists and citizen scientists.
“He has convinced crazy people to set up stations like this from Canada to Costa Rica,” Mr. Utz said. “I am planning on doing this every day as long as temperatures are above freezing. And we are always looking for volunteers.”
“Any insect species performs a myriad of roles,” Mr. Utz said. “Moths are important pollinators. They eat plant matter, a vital part of the ecosystem. They are also prey species for birds, bats, reptiles, amphibians. They typically congregate by the light of the moon to find each other and reproduce.
“What we are doing will lead to more understanding of this group of organisms.What’s here, how and why they fluctuate in abundance, and their basic biological attributes are not well known. We’ll be able to determine what species we have, if any southerners are appearing or northerners disappearing due to climate change, which species fluctuate most with the lunar cycle and weather, and which species fluctuate among years. Such basic biological information is required before conservation, and we currently lack that for most insects.”
Eden Hall is one of 20 sites, mainly in the eastern United States, contributing to Discover Life’s data, Mr. Pickering said.
“I’ve been studying natural history my whole life, and we’ve been looking for a way to get communities involved in doing large-scale studies,” Mr. Pickering said.
It started six years ago
Discover Life began collecting data on moths six years ago.
“We had studied lichens, ants, bees, all these other creatures,” he said. “They weren’t as good as moths because moths come to you if you put your lights on, and the diversity is higher than anything else that comes to you. Plus they don’t sting or bite.
“Understanding when moths fly is a frontier that could answer much about how insects will respond to a changing world.”
He acknowledged that the field needs more specimens of humans to flock to it. As a result, he started a curriculum called Moth Math in which high school and college students analyze moth data as a means of learning quantitative methods.
“By analyzing moth data, some of the students will say, ‘Wow, these things are so cool!’ and they might become biologists.”
In the pre-dawn of the most recent new moon at Eden Hall, the number of moths was a boon, Mr. Utz said. “We normally get 30 to 40.”
New moons are dark moons, so they don’t compete with the light at the mothing station in attracting specimens.
Ms. Giles began photographing when she arrived, holding a metric ruler alongside each moth before taking its picture. She noted the time and date with the sample.
The camera is so sensitive and the photographer so close that, if you were photographing a dime, you should be able to read “e pluribus unum” on it, she said.
A second year master’s student, Ms. Giles is investigating local moth biodiversity, particularly their occurrence based on moon cycles. “Longitudinally, I’d like to see how climate change is affecting moths,” she said.
The other student, Ms. Hausner, a sophomore, said she was looking for something “to get my feet wet and Cat [Ms. Giles] took me under her wing. The fact that moths are big ecosystem indicators really interested me.”
Mr. Utz put his finger up to a small moth he identified as a hickory tussock.
“See the turquoise band on its thorax?” he said.
Moth experts can see something that tiny, can see beauty where others see a nondescript thumbnail-sized thing the color of old paper. With moth people as your guide, you start seeing turquoise bands and eyes, cinnamon-colored stripes, lace, iridescence. One moth glowed pale green like the aura around the moon.
‘Buffet for birds’
As dawn begins to infuse the sky with light, the mothing session ends. Researchers turn off the lights and the moths depart.
“Otherwise, this would be a breakfast buffet for birds,” Ms. Giles said.
Inside the lab at Eden Hall, she placed a mounted moth of the Sphingidae family under the microscope. Through the lens, the moth revealed rich brown fur.
“There’s a cool community of bug people in the world,” said Ms. Giles, who also spends several afternoons a week sorting, arranging and labeling specimens in the huge moth collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland. “Moths of the northeastern United States even has its own Facebook page.”
More than 12,000 moth species are known to live north of Mexico, which is more than 10 times the species of birds. An estimated 1,400 species frequent this region. About 90 percent of their lives are spent as caterpillars, meaning each insect lives just a few days on the wing.
Moths and butterflies are in the same order, which is not quite family, and some moths that are large and colorful are mistaken for butterflies. Some moths even fly by day, which adds to the confusion. The antennae reveal the difference. The butterfly’s antennae are clubbed at the end, while the moth’s taper off.
Butterflies fly by day and are generally considered more special, so they have been studied more, but with 1,400 moth species in this region, Mr. Utz said, “there is a lot we don’t know.”
John Rawlins, the venerable invertebrate expert at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, who consults worldwide on insect species, said he is hoping to start a partnership with Chatham to get students “to expand the museum’s pool of volunteers so we end up with high-quality help.”
Ms. Giles said collections such as the Carnegie’s are “so important for seeing changes over time. I can’t tell you how climate change is affecting moth life in Gibsonia, but over the course of 10 years, I will be able to.”
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