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  • Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato
    Published 28 June 2018, Updated 14 April 2020 Referencing Hub media

    Dr Robert Hoare from Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research explains why it’s challenging to identify moths. He also notes that observation leads to appreciation and, hopefully, conservation. Robert tells us why we shouldn’t use our fingers when observing and identifying moths.

    Look closely to see what common instrument Robert and the students use when working with moths.



    There are about 2,000 – probably more – species of moths in New Zealand. It’s very challenging to identify them, even for a supposed expert, partly because a lot of them are quite small, a lot of them are very similar to each other. Most importantly of all, a lot of them have hardly been studied since they were first named, and most of them were named in the late 19th century and early 20th century. So a lot of them haven’t been looked at for a hundred years, and actually for those species, nobody knows the differences. We really don’t understand a lot of those groups of moths, and that applies to even some of the larger moths.

    So when it’s challenging for an expert to identify them, the expectations – in terms of being able to teach children to identify them – are going to be fairly low.


    At the start, it was hard, but after a while, after we started learning about the moths, it’s gotten easier, because now you can look at the different sizes, colours, shapes of the wings, the patterns on the wings and even the antennas.


    Sometimes you’ll just have a kid that they just look at the puka whakamārama and they’ll say, “That is that species.” And they’ll come up, and it is, and they’ll do that. And we had one girl who just did that – five species in a row, and she was on it. She could just see how this live moth in 3D was that one in 2D. And she just had her eye in, and she was just fantastic. You know, but others take longer, and with all the things, and it’s just having that capacity to kind of judge where people are at, and so everybody gains, but not all at the same speed.


    But I think what’s most important about this is that the whole process of identification is itself, you know, something wonderful and something fun. That’s how I got into moths myself – putting a moth trap out, seeing what you’ve caught in the morning and being able to put a name to it, being able to put it in context. So I think for the children, it’s really about just starting on that route – seeing, you know, what are the different species, not necessarily even putting a name to them but being able to sort them into different species and knowing what might be the important differences – be it wing shape or colour or size, the antennae, body shape, whether they’re big or small, thick or thin, long-legged or short-legged. All those things may or may not be important for identifying moths.


    Scientists have to see things differently so that they can learn more about those things.


    Why can’t you touch the moths with your fingers?


    Well, because the wings and, in fact, the whole body, is covered with little scales, and those scales are what give it its pattern and will help us to identify them. So as soon as you start pulling the wings out or touching it with your fingers, you are actually rubbing off the scales and making it difficult to identify the moth.


    I’ve liked looking at the different kinds of moths that there are and how much there are and the different colours.


    And when you start looking at things in detail, I think you begin to sort of appreciate them a lot more. You start being more enthusiastic about them, and hopefully you might start caring about them and wanting to conserve them and study them.

    Dr Robert Hoare
    Dr Barbara Anderson
    The Tamariki of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti

    Ahi Pepe MothNet
    Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research

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