[00:00:00] Brenna: Greetings from white sands national park. Thank you for tuning into our Mothapalooza podcast episode. Mothapalooza is our annual community exploration of insect diversity and research conducted in the world's largest gypsum dunefield. So here you can join local moth expert, Eric Metzler and myself park guide Brenna Rodriguez for a discussion of White Sands' very unique ecology. Welcome Eric. Thank you for joining our podcast today. You're a research associate and a volunteer here at White Sands National Park. What research are you currently involved in? Eric: Okay. My research involves moths, and right now I'm focusing on the moth populations and communities in White Sands National Park. [00:01:00] Brenna: Very cool. What exactly is it that in your experience makes white sands so unique to the research that you do? Eric: There are two primary things. The first is that it's dunes. There are very specialized insects that live in dunes habitats and they don't live outside the dunes habitats. The second thing is the gypsum soils of white sands. It's the largest, as you mentioned, the largest geologic formation of its kind in the world and because of the soils are so different, that means that the plants are going to be different. And the moths that rely on those plants for their food are also going to be different. Brenna: Just, this is a curiosity question from my standpoint, have you done moth research in other types of dune fields? Eric: I have. I researched moths in the sand dunes, what we think typically think of sand dunes, like lake shore sand dunes in the Toledo, Ohio area, when I lived in Ohio, and I did the same kind of research in my hometown [00:02:00] of Hart, Michigan, where I grew up as a young boy. And there were lots of dunes there as well. And as a young boy growing up and collecting moths, I could quickly determine that the moths that lived in the dunes were different than the moths that lived outside the dunes. I knew that when I worked for the Ohio department of natural resources, the sand dunes along Lake shore Michigan, or the Lake shore of Lake Erie were all, the moths that lived there were all so different and they lived no place else in Ohio. So the, knowing that the moths that live in dunes are different than the moths that live elsewhere was already known to me. So the opportunity to do research here was already exciting and then to learn about the soils and the impact that that would have was even more exciting. Brenna: Well, here's another curiosity question just from my standpoint, are some species of moths migratory, and others are not? Eric: There are no species of moths that are truly migratory. The closest one that comes is what we call the Monarch butterfly. Um, actually butterflies and moths [00:03:00] are exactly the same. Butterflies are just moths in fancy dress. So the Monarch butterfly comes the closest in that it goes to Mexico. And starts to come back, but they never make it all the way back. So it's not a true migration. It's one way movement to Mexico. And then those adults start to come back where they lay their eggs, but they never make it all the way back. There are mass movements of moths and butterflies up here in New Mexico. We frequently see painted ladies come through in mass numbers. In Santa Fe this year, there were huge numbers of painted lady butterflies that came into the city. So much so that people reported it to the newspaper and the news as baby monarchs coming into the city. That's a well known phenomenon worldwide where these butterflies live in the tropical areas, and then they reach height population densities, and they move in vast numbers. Brenna: Okay. I remember seeing some articles about that. I definitely saw a great deal of moths in my house over the last couple [00:04:00] months of the early summer. Eric: Yes. This year has been phenomenal for moths. The moths that you saw in your house are a moth called Euxoa auxiliaris, a cutworm moth and these particular moths were super abundant this year. And in normal years, farther North in the Rocky mountains, these moths amass large numbers and they fly up into the mountains and land in the scree at the base of the mountains where the grizzly bears depend on them as a source of protein, it's an important source of protein for grizzly bears. The Euxoa auxiliaris, every so often they amass in large numbers in the bigger cities. A few years ago, they amassed in Albuquerque. They were on the evening news and the resolution of the television cameras was so good that I could identify the moths on the news. Brenna: That's incredible. What, I mean, I'm sure there are a great many environmental factors that play into these, particular eruptions of moths in the [00:05:00] summertime. Do you, are you able to tell me a few of them? Eric: For the most part, unless it's an economic pest and agricultural pest, it's not known because unless there's money coming from agriculture industry to support research to the department of agriculture and the various universities like New Mexico State University that are primarily tied to agriculture, there's generally no support for that kind of research. I can guess, this year that we had a lot of rain in the spring and the Euxoa auxiliaris came out in large numbers this year. And I can only guess, but my house is also full of them. Brenna: I'm still finding them. Eric: Even though all the doors and windows were closed. Every day there were these specimens were flying around the house. I collected every one of them just to make sure, because this particular genus, there are many species that are very look very much alike, and this particular species has many forms. So it's extremely confusing to be able to identify it accurately. Brenna: I am not as keen on identifying them right now. [00:06:00] I'm still training myself. So the first thing I noticed was that they were mostly brown and that they were probably the size of a silver dollar. Eric: Yes, that's right. And every once in a while, you'll find one that has kind of like silver stripes on the wings from head to tail. That's the same species. It's just a different form. They're quite varied. This particular species is quite variable. The first time I encountered it was in Wyoming at a high elevation. And I put up my traps and there were hundreds and hundreds of these moths, but they were so variable. I thought I had several different species and I already knew the genus Euxoa is very difficult. So I pinned hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these things. I took them to the Smithsonian in Washington. They said, you idiot. Actually. That's not the word they use, but they said, we don't want all these. You can't give them away. Brenna: Wow. Eric: So I ended up recycling the pins. I gave some of them to as many museums as I could, and then ended up scraping them off the pins and recycling the pins because it's just such an abundant moth. Brenna: Right. Eric: Like I said, billions and billions over in the Northern Rocky mountains. And [00:07:00] there's another moth in Australia called the bogong moth that does the same thing. And they amass in large, large numbers and move in large quantities. But it's, they don't return. So it's another not true migration. It's a mass movement. Brenna: Very cool to learn the distinction. Eric: It's very similar to what's going on in Africa right now with the locusts. Brenna: What is happening right now in Africa with locusts? Eric: Right now in Africa for the last two years, there are millions and millions of billions of locusts that are devastating the landscape. They're eating everything, all the crops, everything. Brenna: What brings a mass movement like that to an end? Eric: Eventually they just die. Brenna: Okay. Eric: That used to happen in the United States. But the locusts, the so called Rocky mountain locusts went extinct in the United States. Brenna: Wow. Eric: If you want to read a good book, read the book Locusts. It will tell you about extinction. It will tell you about the Rocky mountain locusts. It will tell you about government policy related to religion and agriculture. Public health, [00:08:00] and a whole host of other things, all because of the Rocky mountain locusts. Brenna: Fascinating. Eric: It is, it's a great book. Brenna: Was there an attempt made to eradicate them? And that's why they went extinct? Eric: Nope, but people did want to eradicate them. And that's why all these other bits of all this other, all this other policy came into effect. Social policy came into effect in an effort to eradicate them. In fact, I don't know if you've heard the stories about the locusts at Salt Lake with the Mormons? Brenna: I have not. Eric: Okay. Well do read about that. There was a time when the locusts invaded Great Salt Lake, and they were eating everything and the seagulls came and saved the Mormons at the Great Salt Lake. And part of that is true because these Rocky mountain locusts would amass in the Great Salt Lake to the point where the waves would wash them up on the shore. Six feet high. Brenna: Wow. Eric: Can you imagine how bad that smelled? Brenna: It's like a snow drift, but it's insects! Eric: Yeah, it was just, the odor was unbelievably bad. And when these, when these locusts would get all the way to St. Louis, Missouri, [00:09:00] And during their swarms, it was so bad that everybody had to move out of the city and they had to pay people to come in with shovels and horse and wagon to scoop them up and take them out. It was just an enor-, it was a public health problem. It was a social problem. Unbelievable. And they did, when they swarm, they ate everything. They ate all the crops, in fact, they were, they were so voracious that they would eat shovel handles. They seemed to be eating shovel handles. And children, again stories probably exaggerated, where the children weren't safe. Brenna: Right. That's fascinating. There's so much that you don't hear about insects. Eric: Yeah. So look up, the locusts in Western North America. The Rocky mountain locust. Get a hold of the book Locusts. It's very inexpensive paperback. You buy used copies online, and it's a read that once you get started, you wont put it down and it's like an Agatha Christie novel, the guy who wrote it, just is a genius writer, as well as an amazing investigator. Brenna: Well, I will be excited to check that out. I know there's also [00:10:00] some research of yours that I would really like to read into. How long have you been conducting research at the park? Eric: I started the research here in 2007 was the first year of the research. The permit was approved in 2006 in December of 2006. And my first ventures into the park were in February, January and February of 2007. Brenna: Okay. That's been, that's been a fair piece. Eric: It's been a long time. Brenna: Has it been pretty exciting research so far? Does it have lulls? Eric: It's been more exciting than I ever would have imagined. Brenna: So how long do you hope to continue doing research at the park? Eric: Well, the field research has eventually wound up because I keep finding new species every time I go out, and that can apparently can go on forever. Brenna: Wow. Eric: When I first started, I picked out this little place where I was going to collect. I figured, well, after a couple of years, I'll move on to the rest of the park. 10 years later, I'm still in that same place, finding six new species every year. So eventually it's got to end because the paperwork has to be done, the [00:11:00] descriptive work has to be done. So now of the laboratory and the descriptive work and the library research is going to go on probably until I'm gone. Brenna: Now am I right in remembering that you actually have a few moths named after you? Eric: I have one moth named after me by another person. Brenna: And that's the way it works, right? You can't name it after yourself? Eric: You can't name it for yourself. It's unethical. Brenna: Ok, that is pretty cool. So what is the moth that's named after you? Eric: Yeah, Eucosma metzleri. Brenna: Can you describe it for me? Eric: It's a very tiny, yellowish white blonde. It is only found in one spot in the dunes. And of course I collected it but, there was a friend of mine who is an expert in this particular group, the genius Eucosma, was working on a book about Eucosma at the time. And so I, of course I was sitting on one of my specimens of this particular genus and he described it after me. Brenna: That seems like a pretty exciting career goal. Eric: Well for me, it's a nice pat on the back. [00:12:00] That's not what I strive for. I strive for the research and the information. I like information and data. Brenna: Absolutely. Since you've been doing this extensive research at the park for a significant piece of your career, what are you looking forward to finding at the conclusion of your research? Eric: My goal right now is to write up as many scientific descriptions of the ones that we know are new as I can while I'm still here and available to do it. My goal right now is to leave as big a mark on the map as I can so that other researchers will want to come and follow up. When I'm done, there will be a great many undescribed specimens that will not have names, that will be, that will go to the Smithsonian. So other researchers can follow in and do the descriptive work. I love collaboration and the fact that this man in Cincinnati described this one. And I'm working with a couple of guys in Ottawa, Ontario at the Canadian National Collection, which unfortunately is closed right now because of covid, so it's brought all [00:13:00] research to a halt. He's an expert on another group that I'm collaborating with and there's one group of moths that only he can do. So he borrowed those specimens. And there's another man at the Smithsonian, he's the only one who can do those. So he borrowed those and he will get, he will write those up when he can come back to work. Brenna: Is the Smithsonian pretty much the heart of moth research in the United States? Eric: The Smithsonian and the Canadian National Collection are the, they share, they combined share the bulk of the research. But I don't know that I could pick one over the other. I'm a research associate at the Smothsonian, and collaborate with my colleagues there all the time. I also collaborate with my colleagues at the Canadian National Collection all the time. One of my very best friends in the world is a recently retired scientist at the Canadian National Collection. And he and I collaborate all the time. Brenna: That's a great connection to have, especially [00:14:00] because moths travel. Eric: Although they don't travel across the border very easily at hand of human, human kind, because the Fish and Wildlife service is deadly on moving dead specimens back and forth across the border. Even though they could fly all by themselves were they alive, carrying dead ones back and forth is, is a bureaucratic nightmare. Brenna: I never thought about that. Well, let me delve back into your research for a moment. So you were mentioning that you get to discover about six new species a year. How many new species have you discovered during your research? Eric: Approximately, 60 species out of the 600 named species. That's about 10% are new to science. Brenna: Wow. Eric: In other words, unknown to science prior to my research, the beginning of 2007 Brenna: Is diversity like that typical to wild areas? Eric: Generally not. In fact, this White Sands National Park has the highest percentage of endemic species of [00:15:00] moths of any place in North America. In terms of a single location. There are regions, different regions of North America, like the Pine Barrens in New Jersey that have a great many endemic species, but that's a region in New Jersey. That's a system, an ecological system. This is unique in the fact it's a single location. Brenna: Wow. I feel awfully lucky to get to see some of that diversity. Eric: I couldn't agree with you more and that's exactly, that's the way exactly the way I felt when I got here and was invited to do the research. Brenna: Well, I actually will have some moths to show you later. We had two black witch moths enter the visitor center and then die and they've left some beautiful specimens of themselves behind. Eric: That's terrific. Yeah. That's an extremely impressive moth. Brenna: Yeah. They are. So the moths that you find at white sands, are they mostly all white? Eric: No. No. Most of the moths are not all white, there are many white moths that live here. In fact, the new ones that I'm naming, [00:16:00] some of them are white and some of them are not. Three of the ones. One of the ones that I named is kind of gray. It flies in the wintertime and I suggest, I don't know how anybody would prove it, that it is dark in the wintertime so that it can absorb solar radiation on the short winter days to get enough energy so that it can fly at night when the days are very short because they have to fly at night to mate and lay their eggs. And they fly even when the temperature reaches below freezing, they have obtained enough energy to do that. Brenna: That's incredible. Eric: And I'm working on two more species, undescribed species from the dunes, but it got halted because of COVID-19 that are also dark colored and they only fly in the winter time in the dunes. I described one other dark colored one from the dunes probably is not endemic to the dunes, but it's never been found any place else. So who knows. And there are other white pieces that live here that are just here because it works and there are white species of [00:17:00] moth everywhere. Brenna: Okay. Very interesting. These moths, do they have, at least in this park, in this place, do they have an average life span or it just totally just depends on the species. Eric: When we talk about the moth, we're generally talking about the adult life form, but the moth as an animal, starts out as an egg, as a caterpillar, as a pupa, and then the adult, the adult lays the eggs, and then it continues. In terms of the insect world and the moth world, 100% of the adults die every year. Brenna: Interesting. Okay. Eric: So you cannot harm the population of moths by killing an adult. Their fecundity, their ability to reproduce, is thousands of times greater than the individual moth that you see. A female will lay 500 to a thousand eggs, and only two of them have to survive to perpetuate the species: one male and one female. All the rest of them provide food for birds and lizards and parasites [00:18:00] and a whole host of other things. Brenna: And bears. Eric: And bears, if you're in Montana and Northern Wyoming. We don't worry so much about bears at white sands, except for polar bears. Brenna: Exactly. Eric: Which are, which are white, but there are none of those here. So, only two of all those thousand eggs have to survive. So killing a single adult moth is not going to harm a population. It's not like taking, killing a bird, where you have killed a bird that's going to live for years and years and years. And then an adult moth generally lives at most, a few weeks. Brenna: I actually recently, a friend of mine traveled to Australia in her undergraduate years and told me a story about how she, she met a moth that was about the size of both hands. Eric: A hercules moth! Brenna: Yeah! So they don't live very long at all! Eric: No, they don't. As adults, they cannot eat. They have no, as adults, they have no mouth parts. [00:19:00] We have a couple of species here in the dunes that as adults have no mouth parts. Brenna: Are they also quite large like the hercules moth? Eric: Well, the one moth that you probably heard or may have heard about the buckmoth. Black and white and flies in the summer, the artemis buckmoth has no mouth parts. And there's another buckmoth that flies across the dunes, doesn't live in the dunes as caterpillars: the juno buckmoth. And it'll be some, it's a dark moth that has white on the wings, but is the same size as the artemis buckmoth, and it also does not eat as an adult. The so-called silk moths are one group of moths that do not eat as adults. Brenna: Okay. Now are those buckmoths, we do see a lot of caterpillars on the cottonwood trees, would that happen to be the caterpillar of the buckmoth? Eric: That's exactly right. And here again is where many, many, many caterpillars are there, only two of them [00:20:00] have to turn into moths. One male and one female. Brenna: That's a wild thought. Eric: Yes, it is. Brenna: What do these, all of these findings you've made so far, all these many species and how they behave in the dunes. Do those behaviors and that diversity have any specific implication for other biodiversity here at the park? Eric: It probably does, but we know so little. In fact, we know nothing about the life histories of the new species, that those implications still have to be discovered. I think what we're going to find is that the caterpillars of those species are using unique plants as local hosts. And the unique plants that they're using may appear to be exactly the same as the other plants outside the dunes. But when we get into it, we're going to find that the chemistry of the plants are different or the endophytes. Endophytes are little organisms that go with the plants that help, the plant development. So the endophytes that are in the plants may be different. Some research has already been done here to [00:21:00] show them the genetics of the plant, the species of the plant changes from outside the dunes to inside the dunes. And so we're going to find that things are impacting the distributions of the moths and the species of the moths. We just don't know what they are yet. A lot more research has to occur. Brenna: It sounds like this is a premier destination for researchers. Eric: It is. I found one moth here in the dunes in June, that was yellow, no markings at all. Yellow, almost twice. Some individuals were pure, almost pure white and, this moth was unknown to anybody before. It was very common in June. And there was another moth in the same genus that lived in Mesilla and it was Brown. It had Brown markings on the wings. So I went to Mesilla and I found caterpillars there. And I raised that moth. It was exactly what I expected it to be. And I came to the park here and I found caterpillars of the same [00:22:00] genus, on the same species of plant here, except they were a month later, and so the caterpillars here a month later we're producing the moths that were white, and the caterpillars in Mesilla we're producing brown moths. As I continued to rear these, I discovered that the caterpillars that I found here when they pupated in the fall, some of them emerged in the spring as white moths, some of them emerged in the fall as brown moths, typical brown moths, just like the ones in Mesilla, but they never met in space and time. They were separated by a hundred miles and they were a month different in time, so they could not see each other or talk or meet each other to breed. But in terms of the current thinking, this particular genus has many, many species complexes and there's absolutely no proof yet that the ones in white sands is a different species than the one in Mesilla. So right now they have the same name. I believe that is evolution where [00:23:00] we have, we're having a snapshot of evolution right in front of our eyes. So we are seeing, eventually the one that it has some white ones in the spring, they will make and start a new species of white ones. Brenna: Just in one year? Eric: Well, it's going to take many, many years for this to happen, but I have seen this repeated now, even when I did it and in my laboratory at home where I reared them at home in my laboratory and the white ones came out in the spring. And the same caterpillars, their pupae waited until the fall, and the same ones that came out in the fall from the same female were brown. So it's going to require a lot more research just to show anything that's going on there for sure. But for me, the excitement is here is a snapshot of evolution! Brenna: Right! That's that's the most exciting implication of all! Eric: For me, those are the discoveries that make this all worthwhile for me. So that's much more exciting to have a moth named after me. [00:24:00] Brenna: Totally understandable. Eric: And what I just reported, just what I just told you about this particular moth. A book was just published last year, which showed many pictures of the moth from white sands and wrote about the differences between the one in white sands and the one in Mesilla. Brenna: What is it called? What's the book called? Eric: Well, the book is called The Moths of America, The Moths of North America. And it's fascicle 22.1A. This is a series of books. I'm the president and managing director of the nonprofit company that publishes these books. I'm not writing any of the books, but I get to contribute a lot of information and data to the authors of the books. And so my pictures and the information that I found here was being used. Were it not for that, nobody would know. Brenna: So these research findings. These publications. Do you see their impact on the community that's [00:25:00] aiming for species preservation and habitat preservation? Eric: I surely hope so! Because of the specialized nature of the dunes here, it's the only geologic formation of its size in the world. And because we're finding all this incredible endemism, rate of endemism, and about 10%. 60 of 600 species, named species. It's a, to me, it should draw attention worldwide attention on the resource here. And I've heard the National Park Service referred to this as the Galapagos of North America. I couldn't agree more. So it is unique in the world and some people say that evolution can't happen that fast. Well, we know in the insect world, it can! When we look at mammals and other things that don't have this amazing ability to reproduce, lay these tremendous number of eggs in one year. The chances for mutation and insects is far greater than, than other animals. So I, [00:26:00] and we know that from other experiments, that evolution happens very rapidly and insects. That's why insects are great animals for studying evolution. Brenna: Well, and they're also more diverse. Eric: They're more diverse. That's exactly right. So the fact that all this evolution's occurring here in the dunes, in a period of approximately 8,000 years just does not surprise me at all because the evolutionary biologists are highly skeptical. So it's going to require continued work, continued research. It's, now it's going to require going out and finding the caterpillars for these moths, finding out what they eat, and look at possible genetic differences in the plants that might influence the moths. I know from my own research in Ohio, the caterpillars are very fussy about where they'll make their pupae, where they'll make their cocoons. If the soil morphology, the structure of the soil is not correct, or the chemistry of the soil is not correct, it doesn't matter whether the plant grows there or not. When that caterpillar goes down to the ground to make its cocoon, it has to find conditions that are absolutely perfect. Brenna: Wow. [00:27:00] Eric: I ran those empirical observations at Ohio when I worked for the department of natural resources. Brenna: Would you give me a brief walkthrough of a caterpillar's, or I shouldn't say that, a moth's lifecycle here in the dunes. Eric: Sure. From my rearing observations, the species that I reared, the one that I mentioned to you, Niditinea verspicula is the scientific name. The moth comes out in the spring, mates, she usually doesn't fly until she mates, so she'll come out and just sit still. And she'll put out a chemical pheromone, like perfume to attract the males. And I kid my wife about perfumes, but anyway, so she will attract the males and then the males will come and mate, and then she will lay eggs and she usually she'll lay most of her eggs before she moves, because it's a guaranteed position for the caterpillars to survive. Then she will fly and they some more eggs and the very [00:28:00] adventuresome females will move far away from the habitat to lay eggs, always trying to find, expand the territory, expand the range. So this summer I collected females of two moths in my back porch, right. That shouldn't, that shouldn't belong there. They should belong way up on the mountain, but they had not made any eggs yet. So I theororize that they are females, that were out looking for other places to lay eggs, that, to expand the range. Both of them are species that specialize in pine trees, conifers, which up in the mountains makes perfect sense, down in Alamogordo, not much of a chance. Nonetheless, there they were on my back porch. So most of the females will lay their eggs right where they came out because that's safety for their, for their, for their babies. The babies have the best chance of survival right there at home. And most moths do not wander far from home because if they do, they risk losing their lives, it's unproductive behavior. So the [00:29:00] males will stay very, very close to home to find females to mate with. There's no advantage to a male to leave home because the chance of finding a female away from him are extremely remote. So the males will stay close to home. They'll find the females, mate with the females, the females will lay their eggs. Some females will wander off, very few. Then the caterpillars hatch out of the eggs and some eggs made last for months before the caterpillars hatch. Other eggs will hatch almost immediately. It depends on the species. It's impossible to generalize. Then the caterpillars come out. The caterpillars will usually very slowly at first until they build up the need, they've got to rush through to development. And they'll just eat eat almost nonstop until they make their pupae or spin their cocoons. When they go into the pupil stage, then that can last from just a few days to months. And again, it's impossible to generalize. [00:30:00] Some species know that they have to have a few individuals that last more than a season because if they all come out at the wrong time and I say, they know it's, they don't think it's just the way they made their habits. Because if they all came out at the same time and it was the wrong time they were, they would, they would go extinct. So they have a few individuals have to wait for periods of time to come up later when conditions might be better. Now they risk losing their lives by doing that. But it's a guarantee. It helps the survival of the species. So out here in the dunes, for example, there's another species that was just described called Eucosma gypsumana, same genus as the one that was named after me. And the student who helped me describe it, Savannah Porter, was a student at New Mexico State when she worked with me on it and she picked the name and it can only be identified to genus by looking at a female. So [00:31:00] over the first eight years of my work research out here, I found 11 males no more than three a year. So someplace down under the ground were these pupae, waiting to come out. Then, on the eighth year, more than a hundred individuals, all at once. So from 2007 to 2015, 11 individuals, all males. In 2015, over a hundred individuals, three females, finally, we decided the genus. Brenna: That's a pretty incredible story. So if I were walking on the dunes and I found kind of a, almost like a shell made out of gypsum about the size of the end of one of my fingers, is that the remains of like a, where or how the moths pupate? Eric: Could be, could be, very well could be. So we have no idea why it took so many years for all of these moths to come up, but they all came out at the same time. Brenna: Right. Eric: So the other ones were kind of testing the waters, so to speak. My language not theirs, [00:32:00] just to see and the conditions weren't right. And we have no idea what changed in 2015 to allow this mass emergence of more than a hundred individuals and in the dunes. And fortunately there were three females. So Savannah very carefully dissected two females to make sure that one wasn't a fluke. And cause you never wanna put all your eggs in one basket. But after the second one and they were identical, we left the third one intact and we illustrated it and proved that it was a different species. Brenna: That's an exciting year! You said 2015? Eric: It was an exciting year! And we, when Savannah does a slideshow about this and she just gets so excited about this female aspect of it because, hey, women make the world go round. All of us men need to be really humbled by all of that. Brenna: That's pretty cool! You know, Savannah is now working as part of our night sky team, and I guess I have a question for you about that. How important is [00:33:00] the night sky to a moth? Eric: Well, the night sky is very important for moth collectors. For the moths themselves, we don't know. Now we use artificial lights to attract moths so that we can collect them. And we know now that moths do not come well to lights when the moon, when there's a bright sky with a full moon, we don't know why, but I know from my own empirical observations, collecting in Ohio on a full moon, that as soon as the cloud came over and blocked the moon, all the moths immediately came to the sheet. As soon as the clouds moved, and the moon came back out all the moths left. The reasons for that are unknown. And there's statistical evidence to show that the phase of the moon has no impact at all. People have collected, they recorded the moonphase and moth catches, and it makes no difference at all. But what we're not recording is the visible moon, whether there's a cloud, whether there's a cloud in the sky or not. So that needs to be recorded along with the other statistical data. [00:34:00] So the people who are doing this research are not evaluating the entire system. So. We do know that moths do not come to the light when there's a full moon visible. When, people ask me why are moths attracted to lights, and nobody knows. So preface that when I give you my guess. Every month, collector will give you their ideas, even though the answer is completely unknown. So my idea is they're trying to reach the moon. They're flying towards the moon. Now I personally believe that very few of them ever make it Brenna: But what a dream, Eric: It's as good an explanation as any because there are no explanations. We know what kind of lights are more effective in attracting them. We know that some species are attracted to the white lights. Some species are attracted to blue lights. So species that are attracted to so-called black lights. There are all different ways things attract different species. We know that. But why, we still don't know. Brenna: What an exciting [00:35:00] open avenue for Eric: research! Yes, it is. Yes, it is. This research is all funded by the department of agriculture, of course, because they have to attract pest species and have discovered pest species. If it's not an agricultural pest, there's no money to support the research. Brenna: It's a little bit of a catch 22. Eric: Yes it is. Brenna: Well, what, this is probably an extensive and difficult question to answer since you've spent your life doing it, but what originally drew you to the world of moths. Eric: That is a very good question. It's very simple actually, but long and involved. When I was in high school, like most kids in high school, I had to have a job, part time job to buy the things that I wanted to buy. Those jobs were during the daytime. I started out collecting, chasing butterflies and all the other insects. But when you work during the day, the only time to go is at night. Moths: that's what's left. It was very, very simple. Brenna: I love that. It's a kind of happy [00:36:00] coincidence. Eric: It was. And then later I learned that of all the butterflies and moths in the world, 96% of them are moths. So if you really want to know what's going on in the moth and butterfly world, you study moths. So, it just, it was one of those, one of those things. Brenna: Now, if we're on the subject of moths, like we have been, of course, if you had to pick three things that you would want to visitor to know about moths, would you be able to narrow it down or is it just too-? Eric: No, I couldn't narrow it down very quickly. The first thing is that most of them are small. We look at the black witches out here and we realized that if the, if there were as many black witches as there were other moths, the moths would be like 10 to 12 feet deep at any given moment. So most moths are quite small. The second thing is that moths and butterflies are almost one in 10 species of every plant and animal on earth. Almost 10% of all plants and animals on earth is a moth. [00:37:00] It's just mind boggling. When you look out across the environment, you don't see them. They're hiding. Most of them come out at night and they're very well hidden there they're cryptic. So they're extremely good at hiding and they're small. And you mentioned, we talked earlier about the white moths. One of the white moths that was described from out here is a very tiny moth about the size of the large mosquito, crawls around on the sand. During the early morning, people see them all the time. They don't know what it is. If people would go down to the boardwalk area between eight and noon on any given morning. And either with binoculars scanning the dunes or they want to get adventuresome and take, make sure they take water with them and just walk up under those low dunes near the boardwalk. They'll see these little white animals scurrying around, down in the sand. Those are moths. Brenna: I never knew I've seen them myself. Now we've talked a lot about [00:38:00] moths in general, but there there's a moth that we kind of use as our mascot because we have so many soaptree yucca plants in our park. So I've heard tell of a yucca moth, but I've come to be aware that it's not just one species. Eric: Yes. Each species of yucca tree or yucca plant has its own species of yucca moth that pollinates the plant. And there are other species of moths that depend on that plant for their survival. There are species of moths that lay their eggs in the stem and the little tiny caterpillars, they go down into the stem and eat the tissue in the stem and the moths that come out of that are little white moths and they're out here. And then the moths that actually do the pollinating, the ones that live in the blossoms. There's one, there's about four species of moths that are almost identical that live in the blossoms. And of those that are there, only one of them actually pollinates the plant. The other ones just are cheaters. So it's like [00:39:00] life in general, the females do the pollinating. The males that are just there. So like life in general, the females do all the work and like life in general, there's one that does all the work and everybody else just hangs on for the ride. We all know we all have examples of it. Brenna: I think so. So really moths are a pretty key pollinator out in the desert Eric: Moths are key pollinators in the desert. The yucca plants would go extinct almost immediately if it weren't for the yucca moths. The, because there are so many moths flying at night, busy pollinating plants, we tend to think of butterflies or bees or flies as pollinators, and of course they are critical to pollination, but the moths are doing just as good a job of pollenating at night. I observed this when I did my research in Ohio, I would go along woodland trails at night with a flashlight, with a piece of red cellophane covering the lens, so as not to disturb the moths and the same flowers that had lots and lots of bees and other things on them during the [00:40:00] day, were actively being pollinated by moths at night. And a big research study just came out of England that shows of agricultural conditions, moths do as much pollinating as all the other insects do, at night. They do it at night. And around here, of course we have flowers that are only open at night. We have the datura plant, which is generally blossomed, only open at night. There are other plant flowers that are only open at night and generally they're pollinated by moths. Not always, there are night flying bees, there are night flying flies as well. There are transparent bees, that fly at night that do pollinating. Very few compared to the moths. Brenna: So much to learn about that insects at this park. Eric: Moths have an amazing impact on pollination and here in the desert here in white sands, as well as around the world. Brenna: Well, that really leads me to my last question. Now that.. Eric: Sorry, primrose was the name of the plant. Evening primrose back East. There are many, many [00:41:00] primroses out here. Evening primrose back East is pollinated by a yellow moth. And if you go back East, if you open up the primrose during the daytime, you'll find this little yellow moth in there. And you know, the ends of the petals on the Primrose are kind of pinkish. So are the tips of the wings of the moth. So when they're hiding in there, they’re actually identical to the primrose flower. Brenna: That's so cool. Eric: And out here, the primroses are also pollinated by night flying moths. Brenna: But do they, is coloring as important for the moths out here? Eric: Absolutely coloring is, is critical because of the moths rest inside the flower. They have to resemble the flower exactly. Brenna: That's a good point. Eric: And there's a, there's one of the species of moths that I described out here as new, the flower moth, Schinia poguei, and Schinia poguei is the flower moth with the caterpillars that only eat the flower parts. And the moth during the daytime, either rests on the flower or [00:42:00] at the base of the flower or on the foliage of the very same plant where the caterpillar lives. But in this case, the moth has yellow and white wings. So I'm guessing that the moth actually rests on the flower. We don't know which one. That still has to be discovered. Brenna: You just gotta keep coming back. Eric: It just keeps going and going and going. Brenna: Well my, I guess that's really a second to last question. Through all your years of research. I know you've seen many moths come and go. Is there one species that really stands out to you? Eric: Well, probably the one that is most important to me individually is the, well, there are three. The first one is the cecropia. It's the equivalent, it's a big reddish moth. You may have seen it when you lived back East. We have one here that's clearly closely related to those, up in the Sacramento mountains called Columbia and people who go up there where the lights are, will find them at porch lights up there. It's a big reddish Brown moth like that. Brenna: Wow. So about the size of maybe two of my hands. Eric: [00:43:00] Yep. Like that, maybe six inches across the biggest ones. You mentioned Savannah earlier. She found one in town. And it apparently had been blown down by the wind or came down to the grill pickup truck because they don't live down here. The caterpillars eat conifers. Brenna: So it wouldn't really make any sense for it to be down here. Eric: It wouldn't make any sense for it to be down here as an individual, but there was, so it’s at home now and I'm going to send some legs to a friend of mine at the Carnegie museum when they opened back up. And he's going to do genetic studies on that moth. Brenna: Ok, why just the legs? Eric: Because they extract the DNA from the legs, and don't have to destroy the moth. So you can extract the DNA from the legs without destroying the moth. Brenna: Never thought about that. Eric: That’s how we do our DNA studies on all these animals. The smaller the moth, obviously the smaller the legs. Brenna: Sometimes you have use two? Eric: Yup. Brenna: Okay. Um, so you said there were three, so that's the first one. Eric: That’s the first one, the second one is the Luna moth, big, beautiful green moth [00:44:00] with tails. We don't have it here. Nobody in the west has seen it. But people from the east know what the Luna moth is. Brenna: Oh yes, I remember seeing them. Eric: And I knew Luna moths ever since I was a little kid interested in butterflies and moths. I finally got my first one on the same week I graduated high school. Brenna: Yeah, no wonder it's got some personal significance. Eric: So it was just because it was such a beautiful moth. The third one of course is the one I named after my wife. Brenna: So what is it? What's the description of this moth? Eric: it's not a very big moth. It's a small moth. It's restricted to prairies in the midwest, upper midwest. And the name of it is Aethes patricia. Brenna: It's a beautiful name. Eric: Thank you. Brenna: So I've always been curious about the Luna moth. Does the name have any particular connection to them? Eric: Other than word Luna means moon, Linnaeus named it. And I guess there was something when Linnaeus named moths, he gave most of them names that had some kind of a scientific meaning [00:45:00] except the giant silk moth. He gave them names that were kind of fanciful. So promethia after the God Prometheus, cecropia, after the god Cecrops or whatever that is, luna after moon, all of these giants, silk moths received, and the giant butterflies received names that had nothing to do with science. So there is, I can’t think of all of them. I can’t think of all the names of the large butterflies. I don't study large butterflies, but most of them are named after. After there's homers, which lives only in the Caribbean. It's very rare, very rare swallowtail butterfly in the Caribbean. And so around the world Homer's, or Linnaeus picked out these large, charismatic animals to receive these names. So there's the Goliath beetle, which is a very large beetle. Goliath means obviously that's a large beetle, but that's not the derivation of the name [00:46:00] necessarily. Brenna: Wow. What a cool world of insects, what hugely diverse world. Eric: It is more than half of all plants and animals on the world are insects. It's a mind boggling thing. Brenna: Well, I hope that you continue to come back and celebrate Mothapalooza with us for as many years as you want and keep sharing all these discoveries because every time I meet you and get to talk to you about moths, I always learn something new and incredible. Okay. Eric: Thank you. It is, it's one of the things that keeps me going. The discoveries just never end. I just keep learning. Brenna: Well, making these discoveries in this place, you've been here over and over. You know, we spend a lot of our time as park personnel, creating messages and posts and programs that encourage visitors to try and see this place as more than just a giant sandbox. This is another heavy [00:47:00] question, but what do you see when you come to white sands? Eric: What I see when I come to white sand dunes, is these dunes, and I see an amazing habitat. And when I first came here, I saw what appeared to be a fairly barren space and the diversity of moths, I never expected. In one very short, less than two miles stretch of road, more than 600 named species of moths. And I'm not counting the little tiny ones that are a 16th of an inch long. So far I'm ignoring all of those because I'm spending all my time on the bigger ones. So if the diversity of those little tiny ones continues to be as great as the bigger ones that I'm focusing on. It's just. You can see I’m raising my arms again, it’s just mind boggling. So that's the stuff. Brenna: Well, thanks for bringing some of the hidden things to light during this [00:48:00] interview today. Are there any last words you want to put out to, help people celebrate national moth week? Eric: I think just remembering how many moths there are, almost one in 10 of every species of plant and animal on earth is a moth. And remembering how important they are because of their, because there are great numbers of food for birds or food for lizards, only two eggs out of a thousand have to survive all the rest of them provide food for other animals. So they're critically important to the environment. They are. Well, the relationships between plants and animals, just, just doesn't end. If we can, we can do that for another time. Brenna: And I would love to! Eric: How do caterpillars help plants, when they eat when they're eating leaves. They do. So we'll leave that for people to ponder. Brenna: Yeah, absolutely. Well, hopefully everyone who's listening will at least take a few moments during national moth week to look outside or even look indoors at some of the moths that [00:49:00] come in this summer. I myself will certainly be looking at some black witch moths this afternoon with Eric after this interview is over. So thanks for tuning in and catch us on our social media platforms to find out more about national moth week. All right, Eric. Thank you. Eric: Thank you very much, Brenna. Brenna: Absolutely.