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'Moth-ers' Shine a Light on Nighttime Beauties


If you've noticed crowds gathering in the dark this week huddled around a white sheet, flashlights in hand, you may have wondered what they were up to. Well, they were probably just celebrating National Moth Week. Forget the flashy daytime fauna; this celebration is for the mostly nighttime travelers that frequent porch lights around the country.

And it's not too late for you to get in on this lepidopteron action. And joining me now to talk about Moth Week and why we need to know more about moths is Ellen Tartaglia. She recently got her PhD in moth ecology from Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Elena. I'm sorry - Elena Tartaglia. And she's in our studio here today. Thanks for joining us.

ELENA TARTAGLIA: It's an absolute pleasure to be here, Flora.

LICHTMAN: So tell us about Moth Week. Why do we have it?

TARTAGLIA: So we wanted to start National Moth Week for two main reasons. So that's our - we have a two-part mission statement here. And the first is really to raise awareness and appreciation for this really very underappreciated groups - the moths, and we include other nocturnal biodiversity in that as well. And the second part is that we wanted to create an opportunity for people to participate in citizen science.

And we wanted to emphasized that people - normal citizens, not just scientists, can make meaningful contributions to data. And every long-term dataset has to start somewhere, right? So even though National Moth Week is only in its second year, we're starting up this big data set to track local moth diversity distributions and phenology.

LICHTMAN: Why do you think moths are so underrated? Especially compared to their - compared to butterflies?

TARTAGLIA: Well, I'd like to say because butterflies are awake at the same time that we are and, you know, I can walk out of my office in New Brunswick at any time and see three or four species of butterfly. And to go ahead and look at moths, you need to be awake at night and outside and really sort of actively looking for them. And so in that way that - they're not in our faces all the time the way butterflies are.

LICHTMAN: Right. Right. But they are beautiful. You brought with you some moths, actually, that I'm looking at now and they're gorgeous. I mean, I think they compete well with butterflies.


TARTAGLIA: Yeah. They often get called butterflies' ugly cousins but that's actually completely untrue. I mean, I brought this case of moths here today and you can see they're in every color from yellow, pink, red, every kind of pattern, eye spots, everything. And people don't necessarily realize that because they don't see them.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. So how can people see them?

TARTAGLIA: So it's actually really easy to attract moths. Anyone who's ever turned on their porch light outside at night knows that moths will come flocking in. So you can go really low tech with your mothing. It's great. You can kick back with some snacks outside in your back yard and put your moth light on, or put your porch light on and have moths come in.

LICHTMAN: De facto moth light.

TARTAGLIA: De facto moth light. Exactly. Or you can go a little more high tech and if you really get into it, you can invest in some mothing equipment. And what I have is I actually just have a plain bed sheet, a regular bed sheet, and I string it up between either trees or posts, whatever's around. And I have invested in what we call a mercury vapor black light. And it's 175 watts. It's pretty bright.


TARTAGLIA: And, you know, you just sit back and relax and watch the moths come in. And one of the most exciting parts of this is that you never know, you can never predict what you're going to get. And so that's one of the fun parts for me, is that throughout the season there's different species that will come to lights.

LICHTMAN: Why are they attracted to light?

TARTAGLIA: That is a great question. And I like to say, well, we're never going to know what a moth is thinking.


TARTAGLIA: But the best explanation that entomologists have come up with is that moths navigate based on what they perceive as the brightest object in the sky. And on a regular dark night that's going to be the moon. And what you're doing when you put out a moth light is you're replacing the brightest object in the sky.

OK. So it's a moth light or a street light. We know they fly to street lights. And so they navigate to this light. And then what happens is - and the reason why we put up a sheet when we moth is that they get there and they perceive it to be daytime. And in the daytime they know they want to sleep. And so they'll just rest on the sheet.

LICHTMAN: And that's why they stand still.

TARTAGLIA: Yeah. And then their body temperature drops because they're not flapping their wings anymore.

LICHTMAN: So, easy to catch.

TARTAGLIA: Yeah. And easy to photograph and take a look at.

LICHTMAN: And do moths migrate? If I set up my mothing sheet at one time of year, will I see different things from another time of year?

TARTAGLIA: Well, they - there are sort of two different things there. So moths have different phenologies so they, you know, there are certain species that come out at different times of the year. Many of them are very short-lived, particularly the large silk moths will only live for up to a week or so. But there are species of hawk moth that have been known to migrate long distances. So it really depends on the individual species of moth that you're talking about.

LICHTMAN: I'm Flora Lichtman and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. What's the difference between a moth and a butterfly?

TARTAGLIA: Yep. That's the question I get asked probably the most frequently. And really, butterflies and moths are just different species within the same order, Lepidoptera. OK? So there are some physical differences between them that you can use to tell them apart and one of the easiest ones is by the antennae. Butterflies have what we call a capitate antennae. It looks like it has a little club on the end - or I say it looks like a little spoon. And moth antennae are really variable. So they can range from the really long feathery, we say pectinate, antennae to a filiform or just plain straight antennae. So that's one way to tell them apart.

Another sort of esoteric feature is that moths' hind wings and forewings are linked together by a little hook called a frenulum, and butterfly wings, the hind wings and forewings are separate.

And then an important distinction is that all butterflies are diurnal. All butterflies come out during the day. And so you'll never see a butterfly out at night. And the vast majority of moths are nocturnal, but there are some daytime flying moths.

LICHTMAN: Do you have a moth life list?

TARTAGLIA: Do I have a moth life list? That's a really good question. I guess I'm coming around to having one. I always was sort of opposed to that.

LICHTMAN: Why? On principle? Why?

TARTAGLIA: You know, I don't know. Because I like to sort of appreciate them all. But then I did a mothing program last night and I saw two species that I had never seen before and I got super excited about it. So I guess I do have a moth life list.


LICHTMAN: Can I ask you about a species I saw recently...


LICHTMAN: ...that kind of blew my mind?


LICHTMAN: It's dryocanda rubicunda. A rosy maple moth. Do you know which...

TARTAGLIA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That moth...

LICHTMAN: They're charismatic, mini fauna, right? They have like flowing locks of blond hair.


LICHTMAN: And they're bright yellow and bright pink, my favorite colors. It's just unbelievable. I've never seen a moth like that.

TARTAGLIA: Yeah. And that moth is a fairly common one that we get at our mothing programs and that's the one that turns people around all the time. And they're like I've never seen anything like this. I had no idea a moth could look like this. And, you know, that's what we're really going for with National Moth Week, people that say I'll never look at moths in the same way ever again. And those rosy maples, I mean, they do get us a lot of attention.

LICHTMAN: Worked on me for sure.


LICHTMAN: So what's your moth research about?

TARTAGLIA: So I recently completed my dissertation at Rutgers and I looked at, specifically at a family called the sphingidae, the hawk moths, and they're large pollinating moths. And I looked a variety of different studies on them. So first I was assessing the differences in abundance and diversity of these moths in urban and less urban areas. We don't say rural in this part of the world, so urban and less urban areas. And so I looked at their population differences between those areas and I did find a significant difference in that there are far, far fewer sphingidae in urban areas.

And then after a couple of years staying up all night looking at these I switched to looking at some diurnal moths. And these are a really understudied group. They're called the hummingbird clear wings in the genus Hemaris. And I was looking at their behavior in relation to the species that they mimic.

So one species is a bumblebee mimic. Super cool, right? And the other two species mimic hummingbirds. So I was looking at their behavior, their foraging behavior, in relation to these species. And then I looked at their usage of non-native plants as nectar resources in my invaded systems. So that's my research in a nutshell. And I could go on about that for...


TARTAGLIA: I could go on about that for a long time. So I'm going to leave that there.

LICHTMAN: Well, we just ran - we're running out of time. I want to thank you so much for joining us and telling us about National Moth Week. If you want to get out and celebrate you can go to our website and we have more information there. Elena Tartaglia is one of the organizers of National Moth Week and she recently got her PhD in moth ecology from Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Thanks again for joining us.

TARTAGLIA: Thank you so much, Flora.

LICHTMAN: That's about all we have time for. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.