Museum researcher wins NSF grant to study rare Hawaiian moths

February 20th, 2014

Photos available

The Philodoria marginestrigata moth, pictured with a dime for reference, feeds during its larval stage within the leaf tissue of 12 families of native Hawaiian plants. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Chris Johns

The Philodoria marginestrigata moth, pictured with a dime for reference, feeds during its larval stage within the leaf tissue of 12 families of native Hawaiian plants.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Chris Johns

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A Florida Museum of Natural History researcher has received $150,000 from the National Science Foundation to study endangered moth species in Hawaii that haven’t been seen for nearly 100 years and were believed to be extinct.

Assistant curator of Lepidoptera Akito Kawahara and his team will travel to Hawaii in July to collect samples of rare leaf-mining moths from the genus Philodoria, which have not been documented since the early 1900s. Researchers believed the moths to be

extinct because farming and invasive species in Hawaii destroyed many of the moths’ host plants as the islands became more developed.

The Philodoria auromagnifica moth feeds on two species of plant from the genus Myrsine (kōlea), only found on the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Molokai and Oahu. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Chris Johns

The Philodoria auromagnifica moth feeds on two species of plant from the genus Myrsine (kōlea), only found on the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Molokai and Oahu.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Chris Johns

University of Florida graduate research assistant Chris Johns, who works with Kawahara, discovered the host plants and moths in remote locations on the Hawaiian Islands of Molokai, Oahu and Maui during a research trip in April and returned with photographs and distribution data to show Kawahara.

“I was stunned,” Kawahara said. “Almost a century of work had gone by and nobody had seen them.”

The adult moths are only a few millimeters long and difficult to find, but their larvae live inside the leaves of certain Hawaiian tropical plants, leaving distinctive and easily noticeable trails across the leaf as they feed.

Philodoria feed on 12 different plant families, from nettles to sunflowers, which is unusual for one genus of moth, Johns said. However, most individual species of Philodoria only eat one species of Hawaiian plant, so when a host plant is declared extinct, the moth species is assumed gone as well.

Researcher Chris Johns travels along the cliffs of Molokai in Hawaii in search of the host plant for the Philodoria marginestrigata moth. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Chris Johns

Researcher Chris Johns travels along the cliffs of Molokai in Hawaii in search of the host plant for the Philodoria marginestrigata moth.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Chris Johns

“Leaf miners get a lot of attention because many of them are major agricultural pests,” Johns said. Johns estimates there are about 30 Philodoria species and said museum researchers could possibly find up to 15 more in Hawaii.

Kawahara and his team plan to map the moths’ DNA sequences to determine how they colonized the Hawaiian Islands. With help from the grant, researchers will test the moths for bacteria to see if it allows some species in the genus to produce “green islands,” where the moth larva is able to keep a patch of the leaf alive to feed on while the rest of the leaf withers and dies. After their analyses, the moths will be added to the museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity collection.

“It’s a huge scavenger hunt,” Johns said. “It tells a good evolutionary story of how these moths came to the islands, and to be able to tell that story is really exciting.”

While in Hawaii, Kawahara’s team will give lectures and field trips to high school and college students and train residents to identify certain moth species.

For Kawahara, teaching younger generations about conserving plants and animals – even if it’s only the smallest moths – is an important goal.

“I think it’s really important to bring students into the field as the natural world is disappearing rapidly,” Kawahara said. “It really is essential – it’s our duty as scientists to show them the natural world out there.”

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Writer: Lauren Flannery, llflannery@flmnh.ufl.edu
Sources: Akito Kawahara, kawahara@flmnh.ufl.edu; Chris Johns, johns.chris.a@gmail.com
Media contact: Paul Ramey, 352-273-2054, pramey@flmnh.ufl.edu