By Brittany Johnson
Moths don’t flutter to mind when most people think about understanding the environment, but according to Dr. David Larson, a recently retired professor of biology from Augustana, moths are one of the best ways to learn about a region’s biodiversity.
Since 1999, Dr. Larson and Dr. Doris Audet researched insects and bats at CURDTS in north-west Costa Rica. The studies moved to moths and bats with the change in location to the Osa Conservation Piro Station in 2012. Dr. Larson’s blog article Seeing Moths in a New Light was published on the OSA Conservation website, and includes photos of moths that have been contributed to the University of Georgia’s Discover Life website as part of their project on the moths of Costa Rica.
Larson has encountered some incredibly rare moths, such as the 24cm-wingspan white witch (Thysania agrippina) which is believed to be the largest moth in the world. Other moths are still waiting to be named: nearly three-quarters of the moths discovered at Piro are still nameless or genus-only in status, which hints at the breadth of moth species in Costa Rica.
How can attracting and documenting moths tell us about the biodiversity of the entire area? “Both immature and adult moths feed on plant foliage and nectar,” Larson replies, “and because in many cases this feeding is limited to a single family of plants or even a single species of plant, this means the presence or absence of a particular moth species can tell you if that plant species or group of species is in the area. So a single species of moth can be an excellent indicator of the degree of biodiversity in the local plant community.”
Since the beginning of the study, nearly 100 Augustana undergraduate students have taken the opportunity for hands-on experience in Costa Rica. They design and carry out their own field research on tropical forest biodiversity, which may or may not intersect with the research of Larson or Audet, and prepare a scientific report. Many have gone on to present their research at Augustana’s Student Academic Conference as well as various national and international scientific conferences and meetings.
“This exposure to designing, carrying out and reporting on a tropical biodiversity field study is a singular experience for any Canadian undergraduate student,” says Larson, “and students at Augustana have the chance to take part in this incredible opportunity.”
The 2015/16 Costa Rica program is already under way. Students are being interviewed and invited to join Dr. Audet for Dr. Larson’s last research trip to the Piro Station in mid-February of 2016. There will be an Alumni Reunion of students who have been on the Costa Rica course taking place on September 26-27. Details are available here.