Kathryn Sullivan is an undergraduate student in the Department of Biology at the University of Maryland. Every Thursday she travels from College Park, MD to the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to curate snout moths.
What are snout moths and why are they important? Snout moths are in the superfamily Pyraloidea in the Lepidoptera, the moth and butterfly group. There are many species of snout moths and they are found all over the world. Of the over 160,000 species of Lepidoptera in the world, snout moths are just a little less than a tenth in number with 16,000 species. Many species are pests of forest trees, farm crops, and edible stored products such as seeds and nuts. One species, for example, is Herpetogramma phaeopteralis, that is a grass or turf pest and is commonly known as the tropical webworm.
Why do you sort specimens by U.S. states and by country?
Kathryn sorted specimens into groups by locality such as country or, in the case of specimens from the United States or Canada, into groups by states or provinces. She has sorted FOUR drawers of specimens in the single species Herpetogramma phaeopteralis and three drawers of specimens in the genus Siga found in the Western Hemisphere. This is one step of a larger process called curation that includes identifying the moths to the correct species, applying labels to each tray, and databasing the moth specimens.
This is important because I often get questions about the distribution of pest species, mostly regarding a quarantine issue important to United States agricultural resources or someone wishes to borrow specimens for study. In the long run, it pays to be prepared to provide specific, correct answers quickly or provide loans of specimens as quickly as possible.
Why do you need so many specimens? A large number of specimens tell me much more about variation within a species than one or two specimens. Some species can vary a lot, for example, in size and/or color. Some males and females look so different they have been described as different species in the past. The more information I have about variation within the species, the more I know about its evolution and relationship to other closely related species.
Are all snout moths small, brown, and shiny? No, the external diversity of the snout moths is immense. Species vary in size, color, brightness or shininess. Siga, the other group Kathryn curated, have large, bright green wings with clear areas that look like “windows.” One species, Siga liris, is often mistaken for a silk moth. Big, showy insects have often been described earlier in history. Siga liris was described by someone named Cramer in 1775 before the U. S. Declaration of Independence was written! Despite being elegant, charismatic moths, the other species, called Siga pyronia, was not described until 1895, 120 years later, by someone named Druce. Kathryn's work has resulted in an increase in knowledge about the distribution of these species, and therefore where they occur. Amazingly, NOTHING IS KNOWN about their biology still.
I found the names Siga thalassarcha and Siga saturniana (Meyrick, 1936) on several websites; does that mean there are four species, not two? No, Siga thalassarcha is a name created by someone named Meyrick in 1936 who didn’t know Siga liris already had a name. We call this a junior synonym and occurs more often than we would like. Fortunately, we have rules of scientific nomenclature that help us clarify these issues. In this case, the person who gave the species the name first, gets the credit. Since Siga liris was described considerably earlier in history, this name has priority. The same is true for Siga saturniana. Meyrick mistakenly or unknowingly also created this name for the species Siga pyronia. In this case, Druce’s name has priority. Currently, the only two valid names in this group are S. liris and S. pyronia.
M. Alma Solis
Curator of Pyraloidea, NMNH, SI
Research Scientist, Systematic Entomology Lab., ARS, USDA
All photos by Alma Solis