Saturday, January 4, 2014

Montana Six-plumed Moth

Montana Six-plumed Moth (Alucita montana) (c) John Ashley
The Montana six-plumed moth has a half-inch wingspan made of feathery plumes
Two years ago this week, I photographed an innocent little moth that was perched on a friend's back porch in southern Arizona. It was an ordinary brown moth, but it had the most incredible antennae that looked just like two small bird feathers. Those "quadripectinate" antennae were the perfume that lured me into the small but dedicated world of "moth-ers" and the vast universe of "mothing."

By comparison, birding is challenging because there are 914 bird species in North America, but our moths number more than 12,000 species! If you think our 35 similar-looking flycatcher species makes for a confusing clade, try separating 73 mostly-gray dagger moths. At least the 1,400 Geometrid moth species vary in color and shape. But behavior can also make mothing more difficult than birding because moths are mostly nocturnal, well-hidden through winter, and vastly harder to see even when they're active in summer.

And so it was two summers ago, back home in Montana, that I found myself crawling around the yard after midnight, wearing kneepads and a headlamp and dragging around a macro lens with ring flash. At dusk, I had spread a white thrift-store sheet over a wooden sawhorse and lit it on both sides with every kind of light bulb I could find around the house. Incandescent, halogen, and four compact fluorescent bulbs thrown in for good measure.

That night was my first whiff of National Moth Week. Around the world every year in July, citizen scientists set out to photograph as many moths as they can find, submitting their photos for experts to identify, which helps illuminate a little bit of the mysterious void that is moth natural history.

Moths occupy one of those overlooked areas that has a huge effect on our own success, in spite of us mostly sleeping through it. While bees and butterflies handle the daytime pollination of plants, it's bats and moths that take over the night shift. I recently read in "The End of Night" that, collectively, moths pollinate 80% of the world's plants. Valuable things happen while we're snoring.

Montana Six-plumed Moth (Alucita montana) (c) John Ashley
MT six-plumed moths are smaller than Lincoln's head!
So this August I was awake again for my second Moth Week, but this time I used black lights which were much more effective. The beautiful discoveries in my own driveway got me to wondering. Were the moths in some exotic place, like Glacier Park, even more amazing than my backyard species? Two nights later I was back out after midnight, trying to document the park's native moths.

Sure enough, my favorite moth from that night in Glacier was a small species I'd never noticed before. With a wingspan of less than half an inch, the Montana six-plumed moth (Alucita Montana) is no ordinary night flyer. Each of the moth's two forewings and two hindwings is divided into six plume-like branches. When spread out and overlapped, they effectively form a pair of intricate and amazing wings. I was lucky enough to photograph two individuals that night in Glacier.

A few nights later, I was surprised to find another Montana six-plumed moth perched on my garage wall. And then another. Two nights later, two more. Once I started looking, I would eventually realize that these little moths were consistent visitors almost every night for the rest of summer.

And it didn't end when summer turned to fall.

As temperatures dropped and the moths disappeared from our yard, one or two six-plumed moths moved indoors with us, into our kitchen. We began a nightly routine that started around 7PM, when one of these tiny moths would begin buzzing around me as I sat writing at my desk. Now, it appears that we live with a resident moth or two that I never bothered to notice two years ago.

One moth's feathery antennae pulled me into National Moth Week, which introduced me to many more amazing animals, including our Montana six-plumed moth. And though I'm still just a moth newby, the adventure continues to expand in different directions. A Ph.D. student from Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University in Fuzhou, China, contacted me for help finding Diamondback moths in Montana (I sent him to an expert). And earlier this week I was asked to collect certain moth species next summer as voucher specimens for the Lepidopterists' Society and two natural history museums.

Also this week, we found ourselves camping once again in the driveway of our friends' house in southern Arizona. As we piled into our camper for the night, a moth flew in towards our light and, SNAP!, our young border collie ate it.

Man, birders have it so easy.

Behind the lens: photographed with Nikon D800, 105mm 2.5 macro with extension tube and ring flash. And I haven't seen the issue yet, but the top photo is also in January's Montana Outdoors magazine. Score another one for Montana's charismatic micro-fauna.