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What good are moths?

hummingbirdmoth

Hummingbird moth, Hemaris thysbe. Photo: Joyce Gross

National Moth Week has arrived. Across the country museums and community groups are celebrating the splendor of one of the most diverse herbivore groups on earth. To join in the fun the team at the Essig Museum imaged our collection of hawk moths (family Sphingidae) for the Notes from Nature project – they are sprinkled in with the other CalBug images. Hawk moths (or sphinx moths) range from medium to very large in size, from very cryptic to conspicuously colored, and from day-flying humming bird and bumble bee mimics to night-flying ghosts of the dark forests. Hawk moth caterpillars are known as hornworms, because of the horn-like spike on their hind-end, and include major pests of tomatoes, tobacco, and other crops. See what species live in your state by searching the Butterflies and Moths of North America website.

Moths and butterflies comprise the order Lepidoptera. The name comes from Latin meaning “scale-wings,” referring to the layers of microscopic scales that make up the color patterns on the wings and body (that powder you got on your fingers if you ever touched a butterfly’s wings). These scales can take on many shapes, sizes, and colors depending on their role in camouflage, mating, or protecting eggs. Scale color patterns are very useful in identifying different species of Lepidoptera – most Americans can recognize a monarch butterfly by its black and red pattern. But they are also the focus of very intense research in evolutionary development, biomechanics, biochemistry, and other areas of ecology and evolution. In one of the Hawaiian moths that I study (Cydia) there are special pouches on the male wings that contain pheromone-producing glands and special “sex” scales that help disperse the mate-attracting odors.

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Scanning Electron Micrograph of typical and “sex” scales of a Cydia moth. Image: PT Oboyski

As an entomologist I am often asked, “What good are mosquitoes?” Or, “What good are cockroaches?” Or especially because they are the focus of my research, “What good are moths?“ People are most familiar with pests of human enterprise, such as clothes moths (Tinea pellionella and Tineola bisselliella), meal moths (Plodia interpunctella), and various garden pests such as cutworms. But these are a tiny fraction of moth diversity. Also, keep in mind that all animals feed on something and live somewhere. The only thing that makes some of them pests is that they feed on things we rather they didn’t in places we don’t want them to. Imagine if we placed a high value on large piles of manure, then dung beetles would be considered pests as well. But there are also species we think of as beneficial. A great example in the northwestern United States is the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) whose caterpillars were imported to feed on tansy ragwort, a pest plant from Eurasia toxic to cattle and other animals. Caterpillars in general keep plants from taking over the world. In turn they are kept in check by their predators, including bats, birds, and parasitic flies and wasps.

cinnabarmoth

Cinnabar moth caterpillars and adults, biological control agent for tansy ragwort. Photos: Wiki Commons

Speaking of bats … Did you know that some moths have a tympanum (like our ear drum) that is tuned to the echo location signal of bats? Upon hearing the signal of an approaching bat they begin evasive maneuvers. Some tiger moths even send a signal back to bats saying, “You don’t want to eat me, I don’t taste good.” Recent research suggests that hawk moths produce similar warnings to bats, possibly because they do not taste good (many hornworms feed on toxic plants) or possibly because they have spiky legs that are difficult to swallow.

So what good are moths? Apart from being biologically fascinating, aesthetically pleasing, and behaviorally wondrous, amazing aerial acrobats, important links in food webs and controllers of pest plants, good classroom pets, figures in myths and fables and symbols of change, and important models for ecological and evolutionary research, I guess not much.

– Peter Oboyski

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Viva la revolucion

Notes from Nature recently surpassed its 200,000th transcription!  Given this milestone, it seems like a good opportunity for the Notes from Nature team to do two things: 1)  We want to show a bit more where – geographically – we have filled in some data gaps; 2)  We want to talk a bit more about the Bigger Picture.  Where do these transcriptions go after they get done!?  We have talked a lot about the scientific uses of these data, and individual projects, but there is a bigger mission and one the Museum world is grappling with right now — how to simultaneously live in an analog and digital world.

Before we talk more about the Big Push to digitize records and get them mobilized for the good of society, lets do something a bit more close to home.  Below is snapshot of an intensity map which shows work done by transcribers state by state.  We focus on the United States here simply because we have had good dropdown list for USA states and could therefore easily get this map made without too much muxing.  We have gotten have gotten a lot of help from transcribers in other counties and you can see more about that in our previous post. You can explore the map in more detail:  click here to see the map .   We made this by simply tallying each record with a particular name of a state, and then linking those state names using a service provided by Google called Fusion Tables.   California (with 64,346 transcriptions) and Florida (with 21,283) make up a lion share of the transcriptions, but there is a lot of effort in the Southeast and West as well.  All things one might expect given the regional foci of CalBug and SERNEC.  Surprising, North Dakota has 1,518 transcriptions completed and Minnesota 2,109!  Go Upper Midwest!

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Merge of nfncountrystateCOUNT and US Regions State Boundaries

All this work really does feed into a larger effort that is happening here in the United States and around the world to make museum data available for broad use.  This isn’t just for scientists, but also for formal and informal science education and the broader public.  Museum specimens are obviously of great value — they even tell us more than the who, what, where, when which serves as a basis for documenting trends in changes in distribution and seasonal and yearly timing events such as emergence from hibernation.  Each specimen yields further secrets — whether it is DNA that can be extracted from the tissues, body size and relation to physiology, and so on.  They also tell stories about landscapes and peoples in the past, and about our own histories.  In this sense, natural history tie into the much larger picture of multiple cultures.

Up until recently, if you wanted to see this vast treasure trove of data, you had to get a special pass to enter the collections, and there under the watchful eyes of curators and collections managers, you could examine specimens.  Museums have always been places where visitors are most welcome, but physically moving around specimens, and figuring out which collection had what remained a challenge.  While access is critical, museum curators have to balance considerations related to the conservation of these precious objects.

In the last ten years, a revolution is unfolding and museums worldwide are digitizing their collections so that the contents can be discovered, searched, and used more effectively and by more people.  This work is very challenging.  Many folks involved in this endeavor have lamented that years of databasing and a lot of time and effort invested in building system to publish data and make them available… and still only 2-3% of the total number of records in museums (based on our best estimates) are digitally discoverable.  We have to hope there is a way to make this whole process more efficient.

So at some point, CalBug and SERNEC will take the hard work done by transcribers and make those digital records available to everyone.  You can see some of the progress that has already happened by checking out projects such as VertNet, GBIF, Map of Life and iDigBio. One of the goals of these projects is to bring together data from various sources in order to create a “one stop shop” for the discovery of biodiversity information.

In sum, the bigger story is that we are witnessing a revolution in how museums make their resources available.  Thanks for taking part and viva la revolucion!

-Rob Guralnick

What collections would you like to see?

We hope that you’ve been enjoying the variety of collections in Notes from Nature so far.  If you’ve followed recent conversations, you’ll know that we have plans to add much, much more.  There are billions of possible specimens that could be transcribed through this project.  If you have manage a collection, please get in touch with us to express your interest.  If you are a citizen scientist with a favorite local collection, please share the Notes from Nature project with collection managers and encourage them to reach out to us.

A great way of advancing this discussion would be via the Notes from Nature Talk section here:  http://talk.notesfromnature.org/#/boards/BNN0000005

Are you a teacher?

If you are a teacher, and you love Notes from Nature and other Zooniverse projects, now is a great time for you to get more involved.  Zooniverse is offering a Teacher Ambassadors Workshop on August 8-9, 2013, in Chicago, IL at the Adler Planetarium.  This is a fully-funded opportunity to learn more about how Zooniverse works and how to integrate materials into teaching curriculum.  Apply now!

http://education.zooniverse.org/2013/05/23/zooniverse-teacher-ambassadors-workshop/

“What’s in bloom?”

Have you enjoyed contributing to scientific research by transcribing plant specimen labels in Notes from Nature?  If you like this, you may also be interested in the UVA Mountain Lake Biological Station’s “What’s in bloom” volunteer, citizen science wildflower bloom monitoring project.  You can find out details about it here:  http://mlbs.org/whatsinbloom .  This is another great opportunity to contribute to science, interact with researchers, and enjoy nature.

What to do about too much information?

If you’ve been working on transcribing labels in Notes from Nature, you may have run across some labels that have more information than you’d expect, or possibly what appears to be conflicting information.  Sometimes, this is the product of an original collector’s identification being reanalyzed and “determined” by a later collector or curator.  Take a look at this Notes from Nature discussion to see how you might deal with such discrepancies:  http://talk.notesfromnature.org/#/boards/BNN0000005/discussions/DNN00000j1

What to do about insufficient information?

Today’s post is going to highlight a recent conversation amongst Notes from Nature citizen scientists regarding what to do when a specimen doesn’t seem to have most of the necessary information.  Is it best to just leave fields blank?  Is it better to just skip it?  Is it a “Top Secret” specimen?  These are great questions, and ones which will likely come up over and over again throughout the life of Notes from Nature.  Here’s the conversation.  How would you deal with this?

  • by carolely

    The label has only the scientific name and a question about that. Should I create a record and leave all the other fields blank?

    Posted 4 days ago
  • by SandersClan

    I vote yes.

    Posted 4 days ago
  • by ghewson

    Yes, then it’ll be flagged as needing more information.

    Posted 3 days ago
  • by carolely

    Thanks for the help. It seems I lost this page when I started this discussion so I never got to enter it. However, I’ll know what to do next time.

    Posted 2 days ago
  • by nosenabook

    I’m glad to know what to do as well, when I saw one like this, I passed on to the next specimen.

    Posted a day ago
  • by nosenabook in response to ghewson’s comment

    Responding to ghewson, it sounds like it is better to leave a field blank than enter “none given” say, for the reference. I started doing that because it was easier than arguing with the form – YES skip this field – and because R. K. Godfrey rarely gives a reference.

    I’ll leave that field blank from here on out, unless or until I hear different.

    Posted 21 hours ago
  • by xairbusdriver

    I seem to have found a “Top Secret” specimen, twice! 😉 If you come across Image ANN000039x, you’ll see what I mean. The ‘Location’ info seems to te a test site for White Out(r)! “…N side of _ Creek Road (S of Rte _), ca. air mi ESE of _. __________ of Sec ” I sure hope L. C. Anderson didn’t get into any trouble finding that specimen! 8) LOL!

    Posted 18 hours ago
  • by ghewson in response to xairbusdriver’s comment

    Ah yes, I had that, and tagged it #redaction. But if you search for that tag, there are 0 results! Spookyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!

    Posted 17 hours ago
  • by SandersClan in response to xairbusdriver’s comment

    I can’t decide whether this is a Roswell, thing, the MIB, or what!

    Posted 16 hours ago
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