Upcoming Missile Tests:
From time to time the missile range that surrounds us performs missile testing that may require the closure of the park or Highway 70. Please follow the link below for up to date information on closures
New Monument Hours
The monument currently opens at 8 a.m. and closes roughly 1 hour after sunset.
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The Wonderful Moths of White Sands
You probably don't think about moths very often, but did you know that there are several species that are unique to White Sands?
My name is Eric Metzler and I study moths. Actually, I study all insects but I specialize in moths and over the past 40 years, it’s been almost moths exclusively. I got my degree from Michigan State University, I worked for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources studying moths and specialized habitats around the State of Ohio and in the northern tallgrass prairies, and then in 2005 I moved to New Mexico.
When I got to New Mexico, I discovered that I was very close to White Sands, and as a kid growing up and through college I’d heard about White Sands because of the unique habitats and the unique environments here. It was a place I’d always wanted to see and little did I know that I’d be invited by the National Park Service to study moths at White Sands National Monument. It’s turned out to be terrific!
Before 2007, we only knew about four species of moths that lived at White Sands National Monument. Now we know that there are close to 1000 species of moths that live at White Sands National Monument, and we know that there are about 30 species of moths at White Sands National Monument that live no place else in the world. In fact, White Sands National Monument has the greatest number of species endemic to White Sands than any other place in North America. That means if you want to see a lot of species that nobody else has ever seen in a hurry, White Sands is the place to come.
Part of the reason for me being here is the unique habitat. In my years of studying moths, I’ve learned that as you change habitats, the species of moths change. That’s because the species of moths are tied to the habitat through the plants. And White Sands National Monument has been a tremendous place to learn about moths, to learn about their adaptability, their ability to take advantage of the plants, how they adapt to the environment, and particularly to learn new species of moths that nobody else has ever seen.
Why research moths at White Sands?
Okay, well, we’re standing here at White Sands National Monument. You can see the white dunes behind me and there’s quite a bit of vegetation right here close to me. And this is in an inter-dunal area, it’s between the dunes. The inter-dunal areas at White Sands are very important for moths because all moths as caterpillars eat plants. So without plants, we’re not going to know much about the moths. And as you go across White Sands National Monument, if you pay close attention, you’ll discover that as you go from dune to dune, each inter-dunal area is a little bit different. They have different species of plants. As the species of plants change, the species of moths change. So I try to visit as many inter-dunal areas as I can to see what the species of moths are like.
This particular inter-dunal area, for example, is the place where Schinia poguei was found. Schinia poguei is a white moth that occurs only at White Sands National Monument and it is very common in this inter-dunal area right here, whereas if we go half a mile farther west into some of the inter-dunal areas over there, we won’t see Schinia poguei. It doesn’t live over there at all. But it is very important that we look at each and every one. The dunes are very important because the soils are completely different. And because the soils are completely different, there’s a gypsum sand, that means that the plants have different chemicals than the plants that live outside the dunes where there are no gypsum soils. The plant species may be the same here as over there but the chemicals are different here. So the caterpillars that are eating the plants here are eating different chemicals than they are when they’re over there. And that helps the moths diversify. That’s why it’s so important to get into unique areas, such as White Sands National Monument, to explore and find the different kinds of moths that live here and to explore the different species of plants here, and see where the moths are living.
How it’s done
Now this is a fairly typical moth trap. This is, um, a light in here and it’s operated by a photoelectric switch, so I’ll turn the light on. Even when the light’s on it’s not much lighter than when it’s off. But there it’s on, there it’s off. You can hardly tell the difference. The light comes on at night when the sun goes down and the light attracts the moths. The moths hit these pieces of metal, they fall down through the funnel and into this bucket, and this is the battery that operates the whole thing.
Now you may be curious to note that I’m dressed all up in a winter coat and hat to be collecting moths. But it’s important at White Sands National Monument because moths here fly twelve months out of the year. In fact, some of the moths at White Sands only fly in the winter months. If we did not come out in the winter, we would never know they were here. It’s a little like fishing—you just have to keep going and trying and seeing what happens. So we may have some moths in here this morning… we may not, but it is quite cold so we’ll just have to see. We unplug the light, says he who has no strength…there we go…take the top off. And we have moths!
In the lab
Well here we are in my laboratory, which is not very big, but plenty big enough to study moths, because most moths are pretty small. And these are the moths that we just found at White Sands National Monument. I’m going to dump them out here so you can see them. These are the moths that we caught in the first trap that we opened. And what I will do with them is a technique that we call spreading, which means that I will put a pin in each one and then I will mount it on this board contraption which we call a spreading board. And by doing that we spread the wings out and lay them flat, we cover them up with transparent paper…I use tracing paper…and we let the wings dry in that position. And in the desert here in New Mexico, it usually only takes a couple of weeks until they completely dry out. Then when we, when they finish drying, we remove them from the spreading boards and put them in a drawer like this.
Why moths are important
When people learn that I study insects, sometimes you get this kind of this “oooh” reaction to it. But insects are really very important in our environment. For one thing, insects are more than half of all the plants and animals in the world. Now I’m not talking about the bacteria and the viruses, talking about plants and animals, insects account for more than half. There are in every environment except the marine environments, they are more than half the species, they are more than half the individuals…In fact ants and termites make up almost half of all the individuals on earth, there are so many of them. It’s just that they are all underground and we don’t see them.
Moths are very important because they are part of the order Lepidoptera…butterflies and moths…and that’s the second largest group of insects. About 8% of all the plants or animals on earth are a moth or a butterfly. And moths are very important because they are 96% of all butterflies and moths. Butterflies are the ones we think of most often because they are out during the daytime but that’s only 4%. The other 96% are moths, they’re usually out at night, they’re much smaller, and we don’t think about them. They’re a very important part of our environment from the standpoint of crops. Caterpillars eat lots and lots and lots of crops, they get into apples through the…uh…apple borer, they eat corn through the corn earworms. They can be devastating to all kinds of other crops, so we’re very worried about moths.
But moths are also evolved very rapidly, for example there are caves, volcanic caves in Hawaii where moth species evolve in as short a period of time as 300 years. These volcanic caves come and go rapidly, as the volcanoes of Hawaii move around, or as the caves move around from the constant eruption of the volcanoes, and the moths evolve very rapidly in those caves. Then when the caves are sealed off, those moths disappear, more moths evolve in other caves.
Well the same kind of evolution occurs out at White Sands National Monument, and moths evolve rapidly in response to pesticides. As we develop pesticides to control moths, they rapidly evolve into pesticide-resistant forms. So we want to know, we want to learn how this evolution takes place. We want to know what are the properties of the evolution, how do the moth species very quickly evolve their resistance to pesticides. And here we have natural evolution taking place at White Sands National Monument in a very short period of time. It’s a great place to learn a lot of things…rapidly…with naturally-occurring animals.
The Galapagos of North America
Because White Sands National Monument is a very special place in all of the world in terms of the large size of the gypsum dunes, the National Park Service refers to it as the Galapagos of North America. It’s a place that is completely surrounded by what we might consider a more normal desert environment, and yet in this very local desert we have forces at work that occur no place else in the world, especially in North America. This is like a very specialized laboratory where we can examine the plants and the animals, such as why are the lizards at White Sands white and lizards in brown soils brown.
It gives us a chance to study why are so many moth species unique at White Sands. Why is there so much evolution occurring in such a small location? It’s a natural laboratory that exists in very few other places on earth. It’s a natural laboratory that’s right here, it’s protected, it hasn’t been spoiled by lots of human habitation, by lots of human intervention, by lots of adaptation or environmental degradation. It’s basically the way it was when it was first formed before human beings ever found it, before Europeans found it, and it’s still available for us to study without these other interferences. That’s what makes it such a special place, and now during our studies we’re finding that the habitat adaptation of the animals is even greater, at a greater rate, and in greater numbers than we would normally expect. Because of all these factors coming together in a single location, it’s something that we should pay attention to, it’s a unique opportunity for the National Park Service to look at all of these factors, and it provides this laboratory for many environmentalists, many scientists, many specialists to get together without disrupting human activity, to get a better picture of what’s going on.
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Visitor Center Tinwork and Adobe
This video looks at the history of our visitor center and other adobe buildings that are part of the park's historic district. Also included are demonstrations of making combed glass and how to mix adobe.
This brief vidcast was made by Explore! New Mexico in 2010. This quick overview will give you an idea of what we're all about here at White Sands! See the video here.
White Sands National Monument Uncovered: Part 2
This brief vidcast was made by AdventureCrew in 2008. Park Ranger Kathy Denton talks about how the sands were formed and where they came from. See the video here.
Did You Know?
The wind moves small sand grains by bouncing them along the surface in a process called "saltation." Saltating sand grains create a beautiful pattern of ripples on the dune surface. Larger sand grains are struck by saltating grains and slowly roll forward, a process known as "surface creep."