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Environment & Climate Change

Butterflies get the love, but there's much more to learn about moths

Ecologist Ryan Utz and graduate student Catherine Giles check on a recent arrival to their “moth board” at Chatham University. Utz says they could see as many as 1,500 different species on campus over the next several years.
Kara Holsopple
/
Allegheny Front
Ecologist Ryan Utz and graduate student Catherine Giles check on a recent arrival to their “moth board” at Chatham University. Utz says they could see as many as 1,500 different species on campus over the next several years. ";s:

 

What do you know about moths, besides that they’re attracted to your porch lights? It turns out researchers still have a lot to learn about the many species of moths and the role they play in ecosystems.

Ryan Utz is an assistant professor of water resources at Chatham University. But right now, he only has eyes for moths.

 

“It feels like just a wall of gems because you never know what you’re going to find," he says.

 

A few of the moths that have been lured in for a photo shoot by Ryan Utz and his students at Chatham University.
Credit Photo courtesy of Chatham University.
A few of the moths that have been lured in for a photo shoot by Ryan Utz and his students at Chatham University.

Utz is talking about a four-by-eight-foot white board. He and his students have put it up at the edge of a field here on the campus, east of Pittsburgh.

If you drive onto campus at night, you’ll see it glowing with LED lights. They draw the moths in like a magnet.

 

It's like a drive-in movie for moths, but the insects are the main attraction.

 

The sky is still dark at 5 a.m. when Utz gets to work each day. He photographs each moth that shows up.  

 

“They’re all different shapes, colors and sizes, and when you get very, very close to them, you notice things that you would never ever expect to see in something so banal as a moth,” he says.

 

For example, did you know that moths have hair? Under a microscope, some even look like fuzzy mammals. The hairs might be there to create a certain color, for camouflaging or to provide warmth. And without dedicated observers like Utz and his students, details like these could be lost.

 

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

 

That’s a problem, because moths perform a lot of what Utz calls “ecological services.” For one, they’re pollinators — just like bees and butterflies.

 

“Believe it or not, a lot of flowers bloom at night. Evening primrose is a good example. They depend on moths to pollinate,” he says.

 

The mysteries

 

Moths also munch on decaying leaves in forests and are an important food source for birds, bats and reptiles. Utz wants to better understand these complex relationships, and how moths are affected by things like air pollution and relentless urban lights.

 

"It's almost like riding the bus the same time every day. You start recognizing the same faces, you see the same characteristics."

Every image he and his students take is uploaded to the websiteDiscover Life. It’s a nationwide initiative to track the biodiversity of moths. Other moth enthusiasts are adding photographs daily too. Utz says the website is a key tool in helping them identify the hundreds of moth species that could visit campus over several years.

 

Catherine Giles is a graduate student in Chatham’s Master of Sustainability program. She’s the resident moth expert here.

 

Giles gets her lens within inches of the the board, places a ruler under the specimen, and shoots. Some of the moths flutter frantically, and others wait sedately for their close-up.

 

Giles says attention to detail is her biggest asset.

 

“It’s almost like riding the bus the same time every day. You start recognizing the same faces, you see the same characteristics,” she says.

 

She says she’s always loved bugs, and she’s thinking of making moths her career.

 

For now though, Giles and Utz say this is just the beginning of what they hope will be a much larger data set.

 

“There might be some species that are starting to change their range northwards because it’s getting warmer. Conversely, we’re probably going to see some species loss, as the cold-loving species start migrating farther north,” says Utz.

Utz emphasizes that anyone can get involved in this moth research. You don’t need special training or even a fancy camera – just curiosity and a love of biodiversity.

Kara Holsopple is with the environment news program, The Allegheny Front.

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