This week I’m sharing a tiny, scruffy, and semi-competently spread Nepticulidae in the genus Stigmella from the same light trap of Prescott Arizona as the past few Monday Moths. I usually wouldn’t share a photo of a moth that isn’t in the best condition, but I’m using this as an example of technique. Not only was this 4mm moth pulled out of the bottom of a light trap, but it was field pinned and dried for over a year and a half. I’ve always heard that it can nearly be impossible to deal with the smallest of the small; and for the most part I haven’t. I used to think you need to capture them off of a light sheet alive in a vial and euthanize moments before spreading, all while never, ever let them dry the tiniest bit beforehand. But as it turns out, you can get away with a decent specimen by relaxing 24 hours and spreading upside down. Of course if you have a perfectly fresh specimen that avoided the blender of a bucket-trap it would make for a far superior specimen. Better yet, you pulled the leaf mine and reared the moth yourself. Most of these Nepticulidae are host-specific and far more diverse than we have given them credit. I’ve heard there could be at least 100 new species awaiting discovery in the US alone.
The story of many San Francisco butterflies are well known and depressing. The area has been heavily impacted by human development for over two centuries and is the infamous home to the first known example of an extinct American butterfly, the Xerces blue. While other butterflies are hanging on, or getting help to hang on like the Mission Blue, some like the Bay Checkerspot have continued to decline despite valiant efforts for reintroduction. Today, the only known colony of the Bay Checkerspot is within Santa Clara County on a site called Coyote Ridge. It was twenty one years of intensive study of the checkerspot in the 1960′s and 70′s by the famous biologist Paul Ehrlich that provided the impetus for federal listing in 1987. As of 1998 the colonies he studied have since gone extinct. Here is an excerpt from a 1980 paper in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society “Two California Checkerspot Butterfly Species, One New, One on the Verge of Extinction” (.pdf).
“The Bay Checkerspot is already an endangered butterfly. This sad situation is all the more distressing since its populations are among the best known – ecologically and genetically – of any invertebrate. We are attempting to get official protection for E. e. bayensis and are designing some experiments to recolonize areas of suitable habitat that are now vacant.”
All efforts to relocate this butterfly have failed, and the future of this animal is not looking bright.
And so what exactly is this creatures name? In 1937 Robert F. Sternitzky described what he thought to be an overlooked San Francisco butterfly “Euphydryas editha var. bayensis“. Those early descriptions of variations and races are roughly equivalent to today’s subspecies – and so the butterfly remained bayensis for decades and became a mascot for conservation. But where was the very first Euphydras editha from and how did the San Francisco bayensis differ? Unfortunately the original description is vague and the collecting locality is simply listed as “California”, as was the unfortunate habit of Boisduval who described the butterfly 1852. But all hope is not lost since the famous French Lepidopterist was having specimens sent to him by the earliest California Lepidopterist, Pierre Joseph Michel Lorquin. An eager gold prospector and butterfly collector, Lorquin traveled California from 1849 to 1858 and again in 1869. Every butterfly that was sent back to France was a new species and subsequently described by Boisduval – who of course named one of California’s most beautiful butterflies after Lorquin.
Enter Emmel, Emmel and Mattoon in 1994 who were writing the Systematics of Western North American Butterflies. In the process of cleaning up the mess of these early western species they had to designate a Lectotype for E. editha editha since Boisduval never fixed a Holotype in 1852. Essentially he named a new species without designating the taxonomic standard for the group, making future work ambiguous for taxonomists. Thankfully the travels of Lorquin have roughly been documented and we can ascertain that he should have been in San Francisco around 1849. Comparisons of the original specimens to the Bay Checkerspot made for an overwhelming case that it was this butterfly that was sent to France in the 19th century. The result of this finding therefore places the Bay Checkerspot Euphydryas editha bayensis into synonymy with the older name Euphydryas editha editha. The name bayensis effectively dissappeared because it was a re-description of a butterfly that was already known.
Euphydryas e. editha as it turns out has been known from coastal California from the bay region down to San Luis Obispo – and so voila, the range of the Bay Checkerspot just exploded. But of course the story isn’t that simple and the butterfly didn’t become magically safe with a name change. Conservation groups and ecologist kicked and screamed and refused to accept the change, even the Xerces Society hasn’t jumped on board with the consensus of taxonomists out of what I can only assume is fear of the appearance that their butterfly is no longer endangered.
I’ll emphasize that this doesn’t mean that the populations in the bay are no longer threatened – there is still a need for protecting these biologically significant populations as they are significantly declining. Habitats all throughout the region are facing ongoing and pernicious threats (pdf). All in all the name change is trivial, we can now call the Edith’s Checkerspot the Bay Checkerspot, and still fight to protect this butterfly. I’m unsure of what would be required to amend the federal register, and if it’s at all possible to expand protection of an animal like this without re-petitioning the endangered species act. So perhaps I can understand the failure to embrace the name change since from the outside it looks like their bug is no longer endangered. On the other hand, this could bring attention to populations of a butterfly that have been overlooked for decades.
Many thanks to John Pelham for conferring with me over this taxonomic headache.
How about another unidentified Gelechiidae from the same location as the previous specimen (nr. Prescott Arizona). I’m taking a stab at this moth being in the genus Chionodes – and it is superficially similar to the species C.continuella. Thankfully there is a monograph of this group (Moths of America North of Mexico, fascicle 7.6) and I will be able to dissect and hopefully arrive at a better identification. The genitalia of moths are wonderfully sclerotized structures that can provide a wealth of characters used for identification. I’ll have to be sure to share images of what the genitalia look like soon!
This moth is a good example of what a lot of my moths are at the moment – unidentified! This is certainly a Gelechiidae, you can see the large upturned palps on the front of the head, and a finger-shaped projection on the tips of the hindwings. Just about one of the easiest families of microleps to identify. And from a general gestalt perhaps this is in the Gnorimoschemini? If someone recognizes this little guy please let me know, otherwise I’ll attack the literature to try and track down the name. This beautiful moth is from the mountains outside of Prescott, AZ – July 2010. Rather enjoyably, there are so many microlepidoptera that are not easily identified.
You may have already heard the shocking news regarding the impending changes at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In short, the museum is in financial crisis and massive changes are going to be implemented by the new president, Richard Lariviere. It’s likely that up to half of the research staff (including tenured curators) will be laid off and all research departments will be dissolved into “science and education”. Money will be spent modernizing the exhibits, all while gutting the scientific core of the museum.
A few months ago many of you probably stumbled across this meme – the famous Poodle Moth! And indeed for the most part the reporting was half decent. Yes, it’s real. Yes, it’s a moth. Yes, it’s probably a species in the Lasiocampidae (possibly the genus Artace) as correctly pointed out by Dr. John Rawlins.
I expected this to be all well and good, hey there are tons of cute moths out there and it’s about time someone noticed! I didn’t bother to read the article until a colleague forwarded it to me from the “Cosmic Log on nbcnews.com“. What I found was horrifying hilarious. NBC for some reason decided to cite a cryptozoologist who was one of the first people to apparently blog about this moth and attempt to identify it (incorrectly, but not a bad effort for a non-entomologist). And then stories like this one in the Christian Post started popping up everywhere: Venezuelan Poodle Moth Confuses Scientists. For some reason they all love using lines like “mystifying researchers”, or “baffling scientists”. I’m always amused by the catch words used in stories like this – and don’t really understand why they are so popular. I guess every time a scientist says “boy this is interesting” it gets misinterpreted as them being baffled; which makes me think the reporter might enjoy knocking science off of its imaginary ivory tower when they get to say “hey look these stupid scientists don’t even know the answer”. And while we often don’t know the answer (it’s sort of our job to discover those answers), it doesn’t mean we’re stumped. Especially in this case, it’s just a fluffy moth.
No real harm, but that whole cryptozoology thing gets me riled up. I think its unfortunate that a cryptozoologist nabbed so much publicity and was talked about with a fair amount of credibility.
Cryptozoology is not a science, nor will it ever be. When cryptozoology is conducted as a science it’s called biology.
Yes there are nuts out there who believe they are conducting real science, following tall tales in circles and building stacks of anecdotal “evidence” that never seem to result in truths. There are real differences between what a scientist and a pseudoscientist does. Say a scientist hears reports of an odd animal living in the deep jungles – they embark on an expedition (after begging for funding) to do the hard work of piecing together local stories and trekking the jungles or diving the oceans to find the specimens. Then they bring those specimens home, dissect every detail, and publish the results in a peer reviewed journal. If no specimens were found then that scientist goes home empty handed and rethinks the possibility of this new mythical creature. Maybe more funding would give them more time in the field… (always the answer, right?) But the story ends there, without evidence the animal doesn’t exist. This is where cryptozoology departs from real science – they embrace anecdotal tales as fact and never admit defeat. Nessy exists because people see him. The explanation can’t possibly be any large array of more plausible options… because the world a cryptozoologist lives in is mythical and fundamentally not real.
OK enough ranting, let’s just hope for more adorable moths hitting the news cycle!
Welcome to the new home of the Skeptical Moth! I know updating blogrolls isn’t all that fun, but thank you for sticking with me. And since it’s Monday – here is an Automeris io (Saturniidae) from southern Illinois, May 2012.
Today’s moth is a stunning micro and another creature from Barb Bartell’s back yard in the Rockies. To the best of my knowledge it’s a species of Mompha (Coleophoridae), probably claudiella,but I don’t have a positive ID on this bug yet. Once I start digging through the micros from this site there are sure to be surprises!
To reignite the Monday Moth series here is a stunner: Melemaea magdalena (Geometridae).
This rare beauty has previously only been known from scattered localities across the mountain west and only from a few individuals every other season. That is until Denver Museum volunteer Barbara Bartell began inventorying moths on her property near Golden Gate Canyon State Park in the Rocky Mountain front range. Over 8,000′ these moths turn out to be a regular visitor at her cabin blacklight and we now have the largest series known of this stunning species (and all perfectly curated!).
Leave it to Denver to combine two things perfect for this blog – entomology and skepticism! If you haven’t seen these clips then take a second to watch the video above. At the very least this appears to be a real phenomenon, camera crews from the news station were able to record the very same effect. So what could they be?
I had an instantaneous recognition of what these UFOs were – flying insects, probably flies of some kind (Diptera) mating in the warm afternoon sun. It has been nice here in Denver and the hours around 1pm are always the warmest (strangely the same time the “UFOs” are most active). But it’s hard to tell with any degree of certainty what these objects are because of the way that KDVR shows the clips. Odd angles, 2 second flashes, fast forward, super slow motion, super contrast… you only have fractions of a second to see the clip in real time. But when you do it seems so very obvious – and in my professional opinion – that these are insects.
Unfortunately they now have a quote from a Denver entomologist, Mary Ann Hamilton (misspelled as Mart on the KDVR website), saying these are not insects. Facepalm. I don’t know Mary and I certainly can’t blame her for being uncertain as to what these are after staring at the footage over and over and over again. In my opinion it was too hasty to rule out insects. Especially because once you enhance… enhance… and ENHANCE the footage you being to lose all track of reality. The camera footage has recorded very out of focus insects, and the very nature of optics means you have lost most of the information outside of the depth of field. And so enlarging and slowing down these images only makes this problem infinitely worse. The pixels become too large to render any meaningful information and an effect known as pareidolia starts to kick in. Our brains start jumbling together often meaningless data into something recognizable. This is why people see a face on Mars, or rocket boosters coming out of the butts of these insects flying over Denver. And I don’t blame Mary for looking at some of these shiny objects whipping around in weird directions and not seeing insects. But perhaps KDVR could have requested an interview with someone at the Denver Museum (which they did not) – they would have been given an entomologist with much more field experience. I can’t say Mary is unqualified and I don’t mean any disrespect to her, but I don’t believe running a butterfly house is the same thing as being an active research entomologist.
This video is pretty excellent for explaining insect UFOs – although these are much larger insects than the ones captured above Denver.
And check out this cool video of a Syrphidae fly hovering in the sun – imagine these out of focus and hurtling around in front of the camera…