Chris Grinter is with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, He recently joined the 2011 BioBlitz in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park, where he and colleagues identified some 145 species of moths in the preserve. The specimens included moths as small as a pinhead, others much larger, and at least one alien species that started moving into Arizona only a few years ago.
The moths were caught with a black light trap, enticing the winged denizens of the night into a holder where the scientists could collect them in the morning. The diversity of the moths was pretty much as expected, Grinter said, especially given the dry conditions, which would account for a reduction in the number of species trapped. “If it had been wet, we probably would have expected three times as much as there would have been,” he said.
Lepidoptera (a large order of insects that includes moths and butterflies) are very important indicator species, Grinter told me. “Lepidoptera are probably the third most abundant order of insects … [and] having a good idea of what species there are in an ecosystem is very important,” he said.
Bats, rodents and other animals prey on moths, Grinter said. “Probably one of their most important roles in the ecosystem is food for other animals.”
In Arizona alone, there could be as many as 4,500 different species of moths, and in the U.S. there are probably 15,000 species, “including all the undescribed species, which we still have no idea how many there are,” Grinter said. It would appear that there’s enough to keep scientists busy for many years to come.