4 May 2017

Shedding light on the world of moths

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 4 May 2017

“The idea is to get primary school children engaged with moths. And to get everyone to think that moths are cool again.”

Barbara Anderson is enthusiastic about moths and about science, and she’s sharing her enthusiasm for both things with a growing number of primary school students.

She’s the force behind Ahi Pepe | Moth Net, a citizen science project that aims to enthuse students and their whanau about the natural world.

Moth collection

Native macro moths collected in native bush near a Dunedin school. Over 90% of New Zealand's 2000 moth species are found only here. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Barbara is a quantitative ecologist at Landcare Research, and she is interested in the data that the schools collect: what large or macro moth species are being recorded, how common are they, and what habitats are they found in.

Over time, she says, the accumulated data will show long-term trends about the health of ecosystems.

The beauty of the Ahi Pepe | Moth Net project, says Barbara, is that the schools all use a standard approach to collecting moths. They use the same simple Heath light trap, and trap on the same nights.

Barbara Anderson and Robert Hoare

Barbara Anderson and Robert Hoare holding large moths collected by students from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Robert Hoare is a lepidopteran taxonomist, aka moth expert, at Landcare Research. His role in the project is to identify moths, and help each school develop its own collection of moth specimens that students and teachers can use.

Robert says there are about 2000 species of moths in New Zealand, and about 300 of those have not yet been described. Barbara adds that 90% of New Zealand moths are endemic, or found only here.

A Te Reo focus

Ahi Pepe | Moth Net has a strong Te Reo Māori focus.

Barbara says that there are very few science resources that are written in Māori and take a Māori world view, and she has been working closely with Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti and Ngāi Tahu to ensure that the Ahi Pepe resources, such as moth identification booklets, are bilingual but ‘Māori first’.

Kiwikiwi moth

Scientifically known as Graphania mutans, this moth has a new Māori name, kiwikiwi, for its gray hair, like that of an old person. Photo: Landcare Research CC-BY-4.0

The team is even coming up with common Māori names for moth species which until now have had names that reflected the European bias of early taxonomists.

“We think that for endemic New Zealand moth species the common names should be New Zealand names,” says Barbara.

Graphania mutans, which Robert says is known as the garden owlet, has been dubbed kiwikiwi. Barbara explains that this common grey moth reminded Georgia, a year-6 student from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti, of the grey fluffy hair of an old person.

Whanariki moth

Ahi Pepe | Moth Net have given the moth species Tmetolophota sulcana a new common name: whanariki, which is Māori for the colour sulphur-yellow. Photo: Landcare Research CC-BY-4.0

The new Te Reo name for Tmetolophota sulcana is whanariki, which is sulphur-yellow. Robert says this species has thin brown streaks along its wings that are typical of species which live around grasses and sedges, as it helps to camouflage them amongst dry grass stems.

Taking on New Zealand - and the world

From small beginnings in Otago and then further afield with rural and small town schools across the South Island, the Ahi Pepe | Moth Net project is about to head across Cook Strait to include kura in the North Island.

Ahi Pepe | Moth Net and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti are currently fund-raising to send five students from the school to present a paper on ‘Science Through an Indigenous Lens – A Moth Study’ at the 2017 World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education (WIPCE), being held in Toronto, Canada later this year.

They are selling badges, moth guides and holding an art auction in June.

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