It is important to study moths because they are critically important in the environment. Moths account for eight percent of all living eukaryotes (higher life forms) both in terms of number of species and in terms of number of individuals. Insects are the dominant life form on earth at more than 50% of all plant and animals. Moths are the second largest group of insects, only surpassed by beetles.
The importance of moths cannot be overstated simply because of their large numbers, they are critically important as nutrition for other animals. Without caterpillars the number of songbirds would all but disappear along with all the other plants and animals in the food web and ecology. Some moth species can be serious pests in the agriculture industry, thus there is a need to be constantly monitoring for pest species.
Moths play an important role in pollination, in some cases they are the only pollinators. Many of the flowers that are visited by bees and other insects during the daytime are also visited by moths during the night-time hours when much pollination takes place. All moths start life as caterpillars, even though caterpillars eat leaves, in a strange twist of events when a caterpillar takes a bite out of a leaf, the plant releases chemicals, called pheromones, that attract parasites to destroy the caterpillars. When one plant puts out the pheromones, other nearby plants are caused to put out pheromones which draw in even more parasites. Ninety nine percent of moth caterpillars are vegetarians. They eat fresh leaves and some species eat decaying leaves. Much of the initial breakdown of plant material into fertile soil is done by caterpillars, which then become moths.
The moths at White Sands National Park present a unique opportunity to learn more about moths and how they evolve and adapt to harsh and unique environments. White Sands is home to more endemic (an endemic species lives no other place on earth) species of moths than any other single location in North America. Because the gypsum dunefield formation is young in geologic terms, it provides an undisturbed natural laboratory for the opportunity to study moths and their interactions with other organisms in a closed island ecology (the gypsum dunes are an island of gypsum in the southwestern United States). The current research on the park's moths began in 2007, and since that time, more than 60 new species of moths have been discovered in the park. The amount of information gleaned is enormous. The study of moths is just scratching the surface of the opportunities for more scientific research, that will follow because of the unique moths located here. Below are just four examples of moths discovered at the park.
Protogygia whitesandsensis is the name of the moth pictured on the left. This was the first moth species new to science that was found at White Sands National Monument in 2007. The name whitesandsensis means it comes from White Sands. Most species in the genus Protogygia live in habitats with sandy soils. Other species of Protogygia live in White Sands National Monument, however this species lives no other place on earth, therefore it is said to be a White Sands endemic. This moth was named by its discoverer, Eric Metzler, and the name was made official by Eric and his colleague Greg Forbes in 2009. This species flies as an adult in the winter months, from February through April.
Euxoa lafontainei, pictured on the left, is the second new species of moth Eric Metzler discovered at White Sands National Monument in 2007. This moth was named in honor of Dr. J. Donald Lafontaine, an authority on the genus Euxoa and Eric Metzler’s friend. Several species in the genus Euxoa can be agricultural pests however this species, restricted to the environs of the white gypsum dunes, like most species of Euxoa is not an agricultural pest. The caterpillars of Euxoa like habitats with sandy soils and they eat a variety of plants in those habitats. Euxoa lafontainei is abundant in the dunes in June. It is thought that the whitish coloring provides protection from predators during the daytime hours when the adult moths are inactive.
Areniscythris whitesands is the name of a very small, mosquito-size moth from the dunes. Unlike most moths, A. whitesands is active during the morning hours. Individual moths can be seen scurrying about on the dunes near the boardwalk during the first two weeks of June. The picture on the left shows two adult moths in copula on June 13, 2012 near the boardwalk. Binocular's may be a useful tool to search for these moths when they're sitting on the sand right next to the board walk (see bottom picture.)
The name of the moth is directly related to White Sands National Monument. Arena is Latin for sand and scythris refers to the moth family, Scythrididae. Areniscythris refers to a sand loving Scythrididae. The species name whitesands refers to the Monument. The name of this moth means the sand loving Scythrididae from White Sands National Monument.
A new species of Givira (the species name is being published right now) is abundant in the monument. This moth belongs in the family called Cossidae, also known as carpenter moths, because their caterpillars bore into living trees. One more new species of Cossidae from the monument, in the genus Comadia, will be named in the future.
Last updated: January 15, 2020