Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Moth project enlightens students

There are more than 2000 species of moth in New Zealand but little is known about these important insects. Students from schools across Otago are helping researchers change that.

Before Jazmine Tau met Landcare Research’s Dr Barbara Anderson she was scared of moths.

Now, the 11-year-old Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti student and her school mates realise just how important they are.

“We learnt moths are good for spiders and birds. Without them the spiders wouldn’t have any food, neither would the birds,” she said.

Her eyes light up as she is quizzed by Dr Anderson. “How many moths are there in New Zealand?” 2000, she answers quickly. “Are most endemic to New Zealand?” She pauses and looks left before tentatively saying yes. In fact, 90 per cent are found only in New Zealand.

The Māori immersion school is one of several in Otago taking part in Shedding Light on the Night, a citizen science moth study. Citizen science is where everyday people help scientists to collect critical data for scientific research.

The project, a joint initiative between Landcare Research, the Botany and Geography Departments of the University of Otago and Orokonui Ecosanctuary, aims to increase people’s (particularly children’s) awareness about why moths are important and at the same time gather valuable distribution and ecological data – focusing on how they are affected by different types of light. Dr Anderson has been leading the project with the support of her colleague Dr Robert Hoare, one of New Zealand's leading taxonomists.

Environmental indicators

Dr Anderson said moths were important because of the “sweet spot” they held in the ecosystem. They are a food source for a wide range of species, and also play an important role as pollinators.

Because of their fast life cycle they also respond quickly to changes in the environment - whether climate or land use - so acted as good indicators of what was going on in the ecosystem, she said.

Dr Ralf Ohlemuller from the University of Otago's Geography Department saw it as a small part of a global effort to try and understand how environmental change affected species.

“If you really want to see how environmental change affects species you need to do things in many places and you need to observe things over many, many years. Citizen science work like this is an excellent chance to address those two shortfalls because we can get lots of people involved in a whole range of places and we can get them excited and hopefully get them to do it over many, many years,” he said.

Public help

Dr Anderson said she first released the value of citizen science when she was working on her post doctorate, looking at biotic responses to climate change, in the UK. Most of the data relating to moths, butterflies, birds, and plants she worked with were collected through citizen science and went back 40 to 50 years.

“That data allowed us to document changes in species ranges with climate change and with environmental change, like land use change. That means we can actually have quantifiable evidence that not just is there climate change but there’s a biotic response to climate change. It’s that one step extra, that things are actually responding to that climate change signal.”

Unfortunately, this type of information is hard to come by in New Zealand, she said. The project aims to change that. The programme will be repeated next year, to compare 2016 - 2017 studies and findings and Dr Anderson hopes it will be ongoing so that the changes can be tracked over time. She hopes to get additional funding to extend it to other regions in the South Island and eventually go national.

Recruiting entomologists

Ultimately, Dr Anderson and Dr Hoare hope the project may inspire some children to pursue a career in entomology.

Dr Hoare said there were only a handful of entomologists in New Zealand compared with hundreds in the UK, where he grew up.

“It’s in danger of becoming a dying art. It’s a shame because there’s so much to discover. The possibility of finding a completely new species is right there.”

There are around 200 species in New Zealand yet to be scientifically described.

He said it was important to know as much as possible about New Zealand moths in order to not only protect them but also the country’s agricultural industries should a foreign species breach the border.

Dr Hoare’s interest in moths sparked when he was just six-years-old.

“I got it from my father, it was his hobby. When my father was a child it was common to go out and look at butterflies and moths.”

He hoped the project might revive the tradition.

Dr Hoare’s role in the project has been ensuring the children have been correctly identifying the moths for their collections and teaching them the importance of labelling their specimens with where and when they were found. This was vital for analysing population trends.

Students light up

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti principal Tiahuia Kawe-Small said the students had been extremely enthusiastic about the hands on project. They especially enjoyed classifying the different species and setting up the moth traps around the school. Some traps were set in artificial light and others in the dark to see how this impacted moth numbers. They have found more moths in the dark than the light.

“Our kura (school) is all about kaitiakitanga (guardianship) so the project really gelled with us,” Kawe-Small said.

However, the project had posed some challenges as some aspects clashed with Māori custom, she said.

Killing questioned

The children asked: “Why do we have to kill them?”

“We had a big discussion about the collection side of things because we would have to put the pepetuna (moths) to sleep,” Kawe-Small said.

But Dr Anderson’s efforts to “see science through a Māori lens” helped put in perspective that the collection was a form of kaitiakitanga.

In order to protect the environment, we need to know what is there, she said.

“Barbara explained it is a kaitiakitanga in a sense because we need to study the moth population to find out the different species we have here because some of them may not even be recorded and just to gain an insight into the population here so that we can protect it.

“Some students preferred just looking at the species and then returning them to their natural habitat. Another group came to terms with putting the moths to sleep knowing they were helping their environment,” she said.

“We haven’t got to the next stage of putting the collection together. No doubt we’ll come across tikanga (Māori custom and practice) clashes with the science but we’ll work our way through it.”

The project was made possible thanks to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s A Nation of Curious Minds funding.

Other schools that have participated in the project include Clutha Valley Primary School, Catlins Area School, Roxburgh Area School, Mt Aspiring College and Shotover Primary School.




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