Moths of Oklahoma's News

October 17, 2019

Population Bias (aka "The Tulsa Phenomenon")

Earlier this summer I wrote a blog post about the ranges of moths in Oklahoma. I finished that post by mentioning the "Tulsa range phenomenon." This relates to my recent post on observation biases.

When I was flipping through my field guide looking specifically at the range maps I noticed a trend - there were a lot of maps that showed the species occurring in the Tulsa area, but not in the rest of the state. Is there something special about Tulsa that results in a huge biodiversity that is not seen elsewhere in the state? I don't think so. True, Tulsa is in the wetter eastern part of the state where there is a higher species diversity among plants and that results in more species of insects, but the number of species in other eastern parts of Oklahoma should be comparable to Tulsa.


Here is a single example of a range map that displays the "Tulsa phenomenon." This is Lespedeza Webworm (Pococera scortealis), which is shown as only occurring in the northeast part of Oklahoma (Tulsa). However, we have spotted this species at two of our moth nights in Norman.

I believe what we're seeing with this range maps is simply a bias of where observations are being made. Not only is Tulsa the second most populous city in the state, but there have also been a few dedicated individuals making regular observations of Lepidoptera in the Tulsa metro area. In fact, the state keeper of Lepidoptera records lives in the Tulsa area and has been making observations there for many years. So when we see a bulls-eye of species biodiversity in the Tulsa area I think what we're seeing is a reflection of the number of days spent observing.

I was first exposed to this concept of observation bias when I was studying meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. We were looking at a United States map that showed the track of every known tornado observation and you could see there were more observations near populated areas. Why? Historically the reason is because there were people there to see them. Nowadays it is rare for a single tornado to go unnoticed in the United States because of the storm chaser/spotter community and the lead time provided for severe weather by weather models and forecasters. Tornado vortex signatures are detected by radar and there are hundreds of storm chasers roaming the country, scouting out every storm with the potential to rotate. Therefore, the data set is becoming much less biased towards population centers.

Do you think we could ever come to a day when moths, or at least certain moths, could be so well observed? Probably not, but one can dream...

Posted on October 17, 2019 21:08 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment

New banner image!

Our new banner image is a Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus) caterpillar observed by @lmm3629 in Jenks! It is a beautiful caterpillar that is not often seen in Oklahoma. Click the image to see the observation.

Congrats @lmm3629 and keep up those observations!

We'll select a new banner image in mid-November.

Posted on October 17, 2019 19:48 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment

October 08, 2019

Oklahoma BioBlitz Moth Results

This year the Oklahoma BioBlitz was held at Sequoyah State Park on October 4-6. We had record attendance of 458 people, so the activities were packed with participants. It is a lot of fun to be surrounded by so many nature enthusiasts. Activities include bird, herp, plant, fossil, or general discovery walks, nature crafts, setting and checking mammal traps, mist netting and banding of birds and bats, and others. A lot of the activities are kid friendly, but there is something for everyone.

There are "taxa leaders" and "taxa experts" that help identify different living things that have been photographed or collected. This year I helped collect the Lepidoptera species list and turned that over to the terrestrial invertebrates leader to compile.

I set up lights on the night of Friday, October 4 to attract moths and other nocturnal insects. In addition to my two light setups, Ken Hobson, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Oklahoma, also had a sheet setup with florescent blacklight bulbs.

I monitored the lights until about midnight, which is my usual schedule, and then went to bed. I got up around 3:45 and checked the lights again and found a few additional species. In all, it was kind of slow for moths and other insects, but during the 24 hour inventory period for the BioBlitz we did turn up more than 50 species of moths and 15-20 species of butterflies. Since then I've seen some additional species reported through iNaturalist that I wasn't aware of at the time we collected the species tally.

At the conclusion of the species tally there were 879 species of life observed in Sequoyah State Park, which is pretty good. According to coordinator Priscilla Crawford, when BioBlitz was scheduled during the month of September they would regularly eclipse 1000 species, but this was a pretty good tally.

Next year's BioBlitz will be held on October 2-4, 2020 at Roman Nose State Park. See you there!
Details should be added here as we get closer to the date.

Posted on October 08, 2019 17:08 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment

October 01, 2019

Large Moth Bias

iNaturalist is a wonderful platform and I use it on a daily basis. I'm honestly driven by my own enjoyment, but I also take pride in knowing I am conducting Citizen Science - the idea that the observations I post can be a valuable tool for biologists. As with any data set, iNaturalist observations must be used with care, and my own choices impact the data set. Biases exist and scientists must take care to identify the biases so that they can minimize their impact.

One of these biases I would like to highlight in this post is what I'll call the "Large Moth Bias." On a daily basis the average adult living in Oklahoma probably passes in close proximity to at least a few moths. How many of those moths do you think the average Oklahoman is going to stop, photograph, and upload to iNaturalist? That's right, the number is so low it might as well be 0%. On the other hand, if the average Oklahoman walks by a large moth, say a Luna or a Polyphemus, how many of those people are going to stop and take notice? Yep, definitely more than 0. This isn't just true of moths, of course. Most anything unusual or more conspicuous is likely to be noticed more than the small, common, or inconspicuous.

Why does this matter with iNaturalist observations, you ask? Well, if you look at the Moths of Oklahoma project landing page you'll see that the most observed species in the state is the Luna Moth (153 observations). Three other moths in the top observed list are also moths that I would put in the "large and conspicuous" category - White-lined Sphinx (115 observations), Polyphemus Moth (98 observations), and Io Moth (94 observations).

If you were to have an accurate count of every single moth in the state of Oklahoma over the course of a year I don't think any of these three species would be in the top 10. I believe the Luna, Polyphemus, and Io have so many iNat observations because when people see them they take notice and feel compelled to share the photo and find out what it is. In general, people are less likely to care what species a moth is when it's small and brown and fits their informal definition of what a moth should look like. While looking at observation numbers I was struck by the low count for Oklahoma's other large moth, the Cecropia. There are only 33 observations of this species in the state. I think that tells us that the Cecropia is quite rare, given that it is actually the largest moth and very showy and has so few observations. That seems significant to me. Another explanation is that the Cecropia only has one brood per year so the amount of time that Cecropias are out flying around is much less than the 2-3 broods of the other large silk moths (Io, Polyphemus, and Luna).

In my opinion, the White-lined Sphinx is more common than the species listed above, but I think it too has been elevated by observation bias because it is often seen during daylight (or dusk) hours and is sort of large.

Another impact on these counts is that iNaturalist is configured to log individual observations of a single organism, whereas some other platforms (like eBird) are built around the idea of logging multiple individuals of the same species, and there are ways to see the quantity and frequency of different species. On eBird you can enter a checklist with each species of bird you saw and how many you saw of each species. For instance, 2 Northern Cardinals, 5 Blue Jays, 100 European Starlings, and 1 Bald Eagle. With iNaturalist you are unlikely to log 100 individual Bluegrass Webworm moths when you see them. In fact, you might not log any of them because you see them so often and have already logged one this week. In that way, even those of us who contribute many observations to iNaturalist are contributing to this bias.

In a future blog post I will highlight how population biases the geographic distribution of species so stay tuned. In the meantime, what are some biases you can think might impact observations in iNaturalist?

Posted on October 01, 2019 13:48 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment

September 17, 2019

Moths in Hiding

Many creatures on this planet have evolved camouflage, and moths have some of the most impressive hiding techniques out there.

Bark


Let's face it, there's a lot of brown moths. Most of these are brown because they spend the daylight hours lying still on dead leaves or on tree bark. The Underwing moths (Genus Catocala) are especially good at hiding on bark, which is important since they can be quite large and would be a nice catch for many birds. The Underwings pull off their camouflage with base colors of gray and brown overlaid with darker ruptive markings that mimic patches of bark. Here are a few outstanding examples:


Widow Underwing (Catocala vidua) and Ilia Underwing (Catocala ilia) observed by @lmm3629. Catocala sp. observed by @arrowheadspiketail58.


Sad Underwing (Catocala maestosa) observed by @kboeg; Ilia Underwing (Catocala ilia) observed by @vicfazio3.

It may be clear that these are moths perched on bark when you're looking at a cropped photo, but standing back just a foot or two it is easy to lose sight of these moths altogether and have trouble finding them again.


Sad Underwing (Catocala maestosa) observed by @lmm3629; Sad Underwing (Catocala maestosa) observed by @israels_walks.


Ilia Underwing (Catocala ilia) observed by @heytheremacie; Tearful Underwing (Catocala lacrymosa) observed by @i268021.

Of course, Underwings derive their name from their very flashy lower set of wings. I believe this flash of color is meant to startle a potential predator when the moth takes flight, helping them evade capture.

Bird droppings


This next group of moths doesn't try to blend in. Instead, these moths hide during the day by resting on leaves and pretending they're something else that happens to be seen on leaves - bird droppings. There are a surprising number of moths that use this ruse and derive their names from their form of disguise. Here are a few examples:


Small Bird-dropping Moth (Ponometia erastrioides) observed by Buddy (
@salticidude)


Olive-shaded Bird-dropping Moth (Ponometia candefacta) also observed by Buddy

Notice that these first two species are from the same genus (Ponometia) in the Noctuidae family, which means they are closely related and it should be no surprise that they both evolved this clever disguise. The next species shown below is from an entirely different family of moths (Depressariidae), which shows that this trait evolved separately. This is a classic example of convergent evolution.


Schlaeger's Fruitworm Moth (Antaeotricha schlaegeri) observed by Matt (
@teriyaki12)


Exposed Bird Dropping Moth (Tarache aprica) observed by Victor W. Fazio III (
@vicfazio3)

While I want to focus on Oklahoma moths, I have to point out that there is even a moth in Malaysia that has patterns that look like flies overlaid on white (bird droppings). After having seen a pair of flies mating on bird droppings, this seems like a pretty good disguise.


Macrocilix maia
observed by @paraggiri

Leaves


Many moths blend in well on either living or dead leaves. In fact, the Herminiinae subfamily of moths are known as "Litter Moths" because many of the caterpillars feed on dead leaves, what is known as "leaf litter." These moths are mostly triangle shaped and various shades of brown to blend in with dead leaves lying on the ground.


As yet unidentified Litter Moth observed by @strix_v and Renia sp. observed by Bill Carrell (@arrowheadspiketail58)/


Bleptina sangamonia observed by @strix_v and Speckled Renia (Renia adspergillus) observed by Emily Hjalmarson (@ehjalmarson).


Bent-winged Owlest (Bleptina caradrinalis) observed by Emily Hjalmarson and @david1415.

These next three are not from the "litter moths" subfamily, but they also evolved to mimic a dead leaf. Again, convergent evolution at play.


Red-lined Panopoda (Panopoda rufimargo) observed by Bill Carrell.


Obtuse Euchlaena Moth (Euchlaena obtusaria) observed by @strix_v.


White-dotted Prominent (Nadata gibbosa) I observed.

Looking at all of these dead leaf mimics makes me wonder if the moths are cognitively aware of their safest perching spots due to their coloration or if they are simply evolved to blend into their favorite perching spots.


Rick spotted this Green Cloverworm (Hypena scabra) blending in quite well on a dead leaf still hanging from the tree.

The beautiful Luna Moth likes to rest up in the trees among the leaves and does a great job of appearing like a leaf, even trembling in the breeze just like a leaf would. That being said, I had trouble finding an Oklahoma observation of this species clinging to a branch with leaves. Most of the observations are on the side of buildings or other structures where the moth is very conspicuous. I have two thoughts about this:
1. It sucks for the Luna that humans have introduced so many perching spots that aid predators in seeing them.
2. This is where people are seeing Luna Moths, but maybe there are lots more successfully hiding in the trees.


Luna Moths (Actias luna) observed by
@anhe


Luna Moth observed among Poison Ivy by Rick

There are also a number of day-flying moths with pink and yellow colors on their wings. I assume this is mostly to blend in on flowers they may be visiting, but they also blend in rather nicely on the fallen leaves of peach trees, don't you think? I intentionally posed these two moths on these leaves from my yard to see how well the effect works.


Chickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopis grataria) posed on peach tree leaves


Southern Purple Mint Moth (Pyrausta laticlavia) posed on peach tree leaves

Other


Here are a few other miscellaneous disguises we've seen in Oklahoma, including moths perched on twigs and cinder blocks.


Green Cloverworm Moth (Hypena scabra) found on the twigs of a shrub


Brown-shaded Gray (Iridopsis defectaria) perched on a cinder block

As I pointed out in the last blog post, you can apply Observation Fields to your observations to make them even more useful. One relevant Observation Field for this discussion is "Camouflage." When you select this field you will be provided with a drop down box to select how good (in your opinion) the camouflage is. I have been filling in this field on my observations of camouflaged critters.

Posted on September 17, 2019 15:33 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment

September 11, 2019

Species Profile: Ailanthus Webworm Moth

One of our most common moths in Oklahoma is the Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea). In fact, this moth is found throughout much of the United States. But it hasn't always been so...

The original host plants of this species, Paradise Tree (Simarouba amara) and the closely related Simarouba glauca, are native to south Florida and Cuba. This was the original native range of the Ailanthus Webworm Moth. However, a closely related tree from China named the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) has been widely introduced in North America and this moth has found it to be a perfectly good host plant as well. Therefore, the moth has spread geographically with the introduction of the Tree of Heaven. It is so closely tied to its adopted host plant that it derives its common name from that tree rather than its original host plants. If you live in Oklahoma, chances are that birds have deposited a seed of the Tree of Heaven somewhere in your neighborhood.


Paradise Tree (Simarouba amara), one of the original host plants of this moth, observed by Joshua Sands (@jcs13) in the Florida keys.


Simarouba glauca, the second original host plant of this moth, observed by Jacob Malcom (@jacobogre) in the Florida keys.


Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) observed by me in Oklahoma.

This colorful little moth catches many people's eye when they see it resting on a leaf or underneath their porch light. At first glance, most people wouldn't identify it as a moth at all. Maybe it's a gateway moth, enticing some people who would otherwise never think of themselves as interested in moths. They see the Ailanthus and just have to know what it is. Once they find out it's a moth, maybe some of those people will be interested to find out more about moths. Anyway, one could hope!

Posted on September 11, 2019 15:21 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment

September 05, 2019

Mating Moths

I've made A LOT of observations on iNat over the last 3 years. So it's not surprising that some of the creatures I have photographed happened to be in the act of mating.

Not to be perverse, but I am always happy when I come across this for a variety of reasons. One reason is that it provides an opportunity to see sexual dimorphism in plain sight since you know you are looking at a male and a female. It is easy to discern different sizes and coloration between the two genders when they are literally attached to one another.


Fall Webworm Moths (Hyphantria cunea) mating

This spring I noticed a lot of variability in the extent of black dots on Fall Webworm Moths and after I saw a couple mating I suspect that maybe sexual dimorphism is the reason. The male has more black dots than the female. I know because after this interaction the female laid her eggs.


Dimorphic Snout Moths (Hypena bijugalis) mating
- observed by Rick Parker.


Garden Webworms (Achyra rantalis) mating.

The Dimorphic Snout lives up to its name: the female has strongly contrasting colors, while the male is mostly brown (two above). Garden Webworms also have some color differences between male and female (above). And there is definitely a size difference between the male and female Waterlily Leafcutter Moths (below), while the Deadwood Borer male and female look much more similar (two below).


Waterlily Leafcutter Moths (Elophila obliteralis) mating


Deadwood Borer Moths (Scolecocampa liburna) mating - observed by Rick Parker (
@rdparker)

What else can we learn when we observe creatures copulating? Well, we learn a little bit about their breeding cycle. When they are breeding tells us when their most productive season of the year is - when their food is most readily available. Most birds breed in the spring in time that their eggs will hatch when their primary food source (be it earthworms, caterpillars of our beloved moths, or crawdads) are plentiful. For moths, the food source is going to be various species of plants. A moth that is found mating in early Spring or late Fall must feed on vegetation with a long growing season or could be a generalist - a species that isn't too picky about what it eats.


Clemens' Grass Tubeworms (Acrolophus popeanella) are absolutely thick this time of year (August and early September). Leah (@leahn19) and Rick (@rdparker) have both found pairs mating recently. According to bugguide, as larva this species feeds on the roots of Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). I'm guessing they feed on more than that since we find so many of these in our residential neighborhoods and there isn't any red clover growing in this area. Maybe they also feed on White Clover (Trifolium repens)?


Forest Tent Caterpillar Moths (Malacosoma disstria) mating

I've also learned a little about the speed of the life cycle of a few species of moths. I found a cocoon of a Forest Tent Caterpillar back in April and kept it in a jar until the moth eclosed. I was lucky enough to see the moth leaving the cocoon on May 24. I released the moth outdoors on the patio and just a few hours later a male moth flew in and they were mating (as seen above). Wow - that's quick! Once the mating was complete, the male's purpose was fulfilled. Once the female laid her eggs, her purpose was fulfilled. I wouldn't be surprised if they both expired shortly afterwards. Some species have very short lives as adult moths, with much longer phases as larva and pupa.


Grateful Midgets (Elaphria grata) mating - observed by Rick

The Evergreen Bagworm Moth, has a fascinating life cycle. I'm going to detail that in a future post, but will go ahead and tease you with this photo from Rick.


Evergreen Bagworm Moths (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) mating

I've taken to adding a tag "makin-babies" for all of my observations of mating in process. I have a total of 36 of these observations now, all of which are insects except for a pair of snakes. Maybe I should have used the tag "insex" instead. ;) While the "makin-babies" tag is kind of fun, the tag is really just a way for me to personally find those observations quickly and doesn't serve a greater purpose. What is more useful to the iNaturalist community in general is to use the Observations Fields feature of iNaturalist. When you open an observation in the webpage you will see a section on the right side of the page that says "Observation Fields." If you start typing in that box you will see a wealth of options. There are a lot of fields with the same meaning, which is a little unfortunate, but since anyone in the community can create fields that is how it is for now. The field I have been selecting is "Behavior: mating" and then selecting "yes." I would encourage you to use this same feature anytime you happen to catch some moths (or anything else) in the act!


Bluegrass Webworm Moths (Parapediasia teterrellus) mating


Southern Emerald Moths (Synchlora frondaria) mating

Finally, I'd like to feature three observations of mating moths contributed by other iNatters. Thanks to Sunshine Bush, Shaun Michael, and anhe for these observations!


Meal Moths (Pyralis farinalis) and Boxwood Leaftier Moths (Galasa nigrinodis) mating


Luna Moths (Parapediasia teterrellus) mating

Posted on September 05, 2019 16:02 by zdufran zdufran | 1 comments | Leave a comment

August 29, 2019

Moths in the News: Moths helping to stem the flu!

Everyone hates being sick and the flu is an annual drag on society. We hate it. And we all know someone - or some years many someones - who get caught by the bug.


The larval form of Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda)

Well, believe it or not, one of the three flu vaccines that is available is produced with the help of a "bug," a Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) to be more precise. This particular vaccine is the most recent development, using an insect virus with recombitant DNA technology to produce the vaccine more rapidly than the previous techniques. Thanks Armyworms!

You can read more about it in this article from The Vaccine Reaction.


The adult form of Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda)

Fall Armyworms are a common moth found in the eastern half of the country, wrapping around into Texas. They are within the same genus Spodoptera as the even more common Yellow-striped Armyworm (Spodoptera ornithogalli). Armyworms are one of many moths that are given their common name from their caterpillar stage. They are known to wipe out crops as though an army descended upon them. The Latin specific epithet frugiperda means "lost fruit" because they eat fruit so quickly.

Apparently this species is thought to be undergoing sympatric evolution (evolving into two species while occupying the same geographical area), so in the future there will likely be a new species described that was previously considered a Fall Armyworm.

As with common names of plants and other forms of life, the name "Armyworm" is not a really good taxonomical descriptor. It is applied to several Spodoptera species, as well as to one moth in a different genus. The "True Armyworm" (also called "Common Armyworm" or "White-Speck") is Mythimna unipuncta. This moth derives its name of armyworm for the same reason. I prefer the name "White-Speck" for this species, though, since that name is unique and also a good visual descriptor for the drab brown moth with a white speck on each wing.


Armyworm a.k.a. White Speck (Mythimna unipuncta)

I'd like to remind everyone that we are approaching flu season and flu shots are already available. Don't forget to get yours before the flu gets you!

Posted on August 29, 2019 18:10 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 23, 2019

Project updates and new banner image!

We've had a very successful mothing season, with lots of new species seen in the state and several new members who are submitting observations on a regular basis!

iNaturalist has two different types of projects and I decided to convert this project from a "traditional" to a "collective" project. What this means for you is that you no longer have to add each of your observations to the Moths of Oklahoma project; they will automatically be collected if they are seen in Oklahoma and fall within the moth taxonomy. This also means that we're not missing any observations. It does make the project look a little different, if you're used to viewing it in a web browser.

I've also taken this opportunity to institute a new idea for the banner image of the project. Each month I will change out the banner image with a new moth photo from one of our observations over the last month. Due to the layout, I will look for photos that are wide, or that could be rotated to fit the space nicely. For consistency, I will keep the icon image for the project the same, but the banner image will get a makeover every month.

Our first new banner image is a Deep Yellow Euchlaena (Euchlaena amoenaria) photographed by Anna Bennett (@annainok). This is an excellent photo, capturing fine details of a really beautiful moth. This species is found in eastern Oklahoma and has been observed several times this year in the state. Anna's photo will be the banner image for the next month. In the last week of September we'll select a new image from recent observations.

Posted on August 23, 2019 14:29 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 19, 2019

Moths in the News: Ghost Orchid Pollination

There is an orchid that grows in the Everglades of south Florida that has captured the attention of many people. In fact, a wonderful non-fiction book was written about a person obsessed with this orchid, and later a movie was adapted from the book, appropriately titled "Adaptation." The orchid is nicknamed the Ghost Orchid because the plant itself lacks any leaves and the white blooms appear to float in the air. There are actually a number of leafless orchids, but this is the only one native to the United States.


Photo by Mac Stone

Apparently scientists have not been able to determine what creature pollinates these orchids. Locating the orchids can be difficult, and studying them is not easy due to their often high placement in the canopy of the large cypress trees that eke out their existence in Florida's swampy southern reaches. A team of photographers recently overcame these obstacles and captured some great images.


Photo by Mac Stone

My first love (plants) and my most recent obsession (moths) collide in this story. Enjoy!

Read the Audubon story on Ghost Orchid Pollination here.



Posted on August 19, 2019 14:38 by zdufran zdufran | 0 comments | Leave a comment