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  • Ahi Pepe MothNet is a citizen science project that explores New Zealand’s native moths, their distributions and whether vegetation restoration impacts moth diversity. One aspect of the project is trapping, collecting and pinning moths to create local reference collections.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Insect specimens

    Scientists at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research collect and store various insect specimens for use as a reference collection. They use these for research and biosecurity.

    Why have reference collections?

    Museums like Te Papa Tongarewa and institutes like Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research hold reference collections. The collections are made up of animal and plant specimens and are records of species found at particular points in time. Historical collections help scientists detect changes in the number and diversity of species that inhabit an area and evolutionary changes that may happen within species.

    Museum collections hold reference specimens called ‘type’ specimens. These are the physical specimen of a new species as nominated by the author at the time of publication of the original description. Type specimens are important as they provide a reference point for the future if there are questions about the species.

    In addition to the big national collections, scientists make smaller collections to catalogue regional or local species. They record the location, date and other details before carefully pinning or storing the specimen. Having a physical specimen helps scientists ensure they are calling the same species by the same name. Knowing where different species are found also helps with conservation and biosecurity management.

    Schools working with Ahi Pepe MothNet also make reference collections. The collections make it easier for the students to identify the different moth species in their local area. Students can use their collections to identify moth species, make comparisons between species and keep track of species diversity.

    Why euthanise some moths?

    Moths are euthanised in order to create reference collections.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Reference collections and ethical issues

    Collections are an accepted part of science. Scientists understand that, to make a collection, living things need to be euthanised (killed). However, what may be acceptable to scientists like Dr Barbara Anderson, science leader of the Ahi Pepe MothNet team, isn’t acceptable to the tamariki she works with at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti.

    Students want to be the scientists, use this equipment and gain these skills, but they want to minimise the impact on their cultural beliefs as much as possible.

    Tiahuia Kawe-Small

    For Māori, kaitiakitanga is an overarching concept regarding the care and guardianship of the environment. Everything in the world has a mauri (life force) that is to be respected. The students had ethical issues with the thought of killing creatures that are to be cherished as gifts from Tāne.

    Bringing together mātauranga Māori and science

    Educators Victoria Campbell and Tiahuia Kawe-Small attribute the success of the Ahi Pepe MothNet project to collaboration and the blending of mātauranga Māori and science.

    Select here to view video transcript, some of the aspects of the nature of science covered and copyright information.

    Consultation with the wider community

    Students, teachers and the wider whānau met to find a way to pursue the science in a way that would have minimal impact on their cultural beliefs. They considered photographing the moths and using the images as references. However, it’s much easier to compare a live moth to a pinned, three-dimensional specimen than it is to compare it to an image.

    Kā Whakanui i te Kaitiakitaka

    Ka whakamārama a Tiahuia Kawe-Small i kā tikaka o te Kura e ana ki te whakamateka o kā pepe tuna i roto i te mahi pūtaiao.

    English translation
    Tiahuia Kawe-Small explains how the kura dealt with the issue of killing moths for scientific observation.

    The solution is to consider the value reference collections can offer to the moth population as a whole. By sacrificing a few moths, students and scientists are learning a lot about biodiversity and how stable the local moth population is. Understanding the real value that the sacrificed moths give to the greater moth population allows the students and whānau to put their concerns to rest and establish tikanga to honour the moths’ contribution to the project.

    Honouring tikanga and the sacrifice of moths

    Ahi Pepe MothNet participants developed a protocol to help them balance kaitiakitanga with the development of moth reference collections.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Students use Heath moth traps to trap and collect moths for identification and study. The captured moths are chilled in the fridge for a few minutes to lower their body temperature. This reduces their activity and makes them more easily observable by the tamariki. The students then select two specimens from each species and recite a special karakia giving thanks to Tāne-mahuta o Rehua for gifting the moths to the Earth. The selected moths go into the freezer where they quietly go to sleep. The remainder of the moths are set free.

    Students use identification guides to identify the sacrificed moths. They then create labels and carefully pin them to create the reference collections. Fortunately, moths are quick and prolific breeders. By only taking a few of each whānau (species), moth numbers are minimally impacted – but our knowledge of moths is greatly enhanced.

    Nature of science

    As societies change, science can and does change with them. The fundamental scientific concepts and principles stay the same, but the way in which the science is conducted may change. Issues like consent and consideration for cultural beliefs are important aspects of scientific processes.

    Related content

    Find out about national reference collections in the article Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research’s insect collection.

    Watch as Dr Robert Hoare shows how to mount a moth for display.

    Read about kaitiakitanga and mana whakahaere.

    Ethical issues often crop up in the science field. The following resources are useful for educators: Teaching ethics, Frameworks for ethical analysis, Ethical thinking in science and the activity Ethics thinking toolkit.

    Useful link

    Visit Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research’s website to download information on pinning and labelling moths.


    The Ahi Pepe MothNet project received funding through Otago Science into Action – the Otago pilot of the Participatory Science Platform (PSP), which is part of the Curious Minds initiative and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The PSP is currently being implemented as a pilot in three areas: South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago.

    Ahi Pepe MothNet has also received additional funding from Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research; Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti; Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu; Te Tumu, University of Otago; Department of Geography, University of Otago; Orokonui Ecosanctuary; Otago Museum; and New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

    The government’s national strategic plan for Science in Society [PDF, 1.2 MB], A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara, is a government initiative jointly led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Ministry of Education and Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

      Published 29 June 2018, Updated 2 July 2018 Referencing Hub articles
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