By 'Possum' Pete Crowcroft
I love moths now. I didn’t always.
Sure, I found them fascinating, I never disliked them, but didn’t go beyond the "Oh, that’s a cool moth!" level. Now though I am in deep, and like many things that you take for granted, once you scratch the surface and delve into understanding more about them, moths truly are a gift that keep on giving.
For me they have been an exciting project during our times in lock-down, because when I turn on the light at night, they come to me in their glorious diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors. Often exquisitely camouflaged to avoid predation during the day, they might match beautifully with a eucalyptus leaf, bark, or even dried sap. I suggest that purely on a biodiversity level, moths represent the pinnacle taxon (group of animals) for sheer number of different species available to observe and identify at your own home (except perhaps if you got out the microscope and sifted your way through the worm farm or compost heap).
There’s over 2000 species recorded in Victoria alone, and more awaiting discovery (Moths of Victoria, Vol 1, 2017). So far my personal tally at home sits at nearly two hundred different, unique, species.
They are incredibly important as pollinators and as food for birds. In fact, it is suggested by Professor Ken Walker on his recent appearance talking moths on Gardening Australia (link below) that if the moths were to disappear we would lose 60% of our bird species, and pollination efficiency would be catastrophically affected. The flight of billions of Bogong Moth (Agrotis infusa) to Australia’s alpine region each summer supports whole ecosystems including that of the critically endangered Mountain Pygmy Possum (Burramys parvus). Worryingly this flight has failed in recent years.
Given their habit of flying at night, moths do fly under the radar for many people. I’m keen to change that, create a few more moth lovers along the way or at least spread the understanding that moths are exceptionally valuable in our environment. I think a major factor limiting our appreciation is our physical perspective, from 5-6ft high moths are just a little bit too small for us to see in their full splendor with our naked eye. Once we take their image with a macro lens and flash though, it is much easier to appreciate these animals.
It also isn’t super helpful that many moths don’t even have a common name, and although I’ve come to love a good long-winded species name like Hypobapta tachyhalotaria(!), I know they can be a bit off putting for someone starting out. The best tip I can give you is stick with it, trust your memory, it is probably much more capable than you think. Apples, Oranges, Anthela acuta, Phallaria ophiusaria. It is still just using the same memory, you might just have to want it a bit more! Come to think of it those ones are bad examples as they all do have common names, so you should probably just use them.
Here’s a selection of photos from recent weeks photographing these cool visitors to my house in Anglesea.
So, how come I’ve nearly seen 200 different species at my house? Because they come to light, and I make the most of that natural attraction. By setting up bright lights outside and shining them onto a big white sheet, once the sun sets my backyard is the brightest place around, and the moths come from far and wide. Of course it also helps that I live in a biodiversity hot-spot, a renowned area for great numbers of different species of both plants and animals.
The equipment required to set up one of these yourself is easy and relatively cheap to purchase (search on eBay for LED lighting). The camera equipment, not so much. Although many phone cameras are amazing these days if you want a sharp close up image of a moth you might need to consider a compact camera with a decent macro setting, or splash out on a macro lens for your DSLR. For these photos I am using a Fujifilm XT-1 mirrorless DSLR with the XF 60mm F2.4 R Macro Lens, and a stock flash with some packing foam wrapped around it to soften the light intensity.
If you choose to explore the nocturnal biodiversity of moths, here’s a couple of suggestions to minimise your impact, or maximise your contribution to the field.
Don’t handle the moths, or keep handling to a minimum. Never touch the wings, as the scales necessary for flight are shed easily - meaning the moth will no longer be able to fly if they get rubbed off.
Once I am finished for the night I turn the light off and give the moths a chance to avoid being prey for the morning birds. If you are going all night (kudos, your stamina is better than mine) you might try to relocate some moths from the sheet to a safe position by gently getting them to hold onto a stick or leaf and placing them in cover.
All of my observations go onto the iNaturalist website, a huge biodiversity database citizen scientists and experts alike use to record their observations. In Australia your records will go onto the Atlas of Living Australia and become a piece of valid research data, contributing to our understanding of moth biology. Check out my observations on my profile page @possumpete.
As part of the Great Southern Bioblitz, lets make September 26th moth night around the Southern Hemisphere. Observe what you can and upload your pictures onto iNaturalist!
References & Resources
Moths of Victoria - Vol:1-8. Entomological Society of Victoria. Major contributors - Marilyn Hewish, Peter Marriott, Axel Kallies.
A Guide to Australian Moths. CSIRO. 2017. Paul Zborowski & Ted Edwards.
Further moth related links to check out!
Pete Crowcroft is currently a very frustrated outdoor environmental educator that works along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria (not much outdoor education happening at the moment!). He did an honours project on ringtail possums back in the day, hence the nickname and his nocturnal habits.