BILLINGS – As the less sexy and drab relative of the butterfly, moths don’t get a lot of positive attention. It doesn’t help that most are active at night. Yet they outnumber butterflies about nine to one.
A team of three people is hoping to boost the moth’s lepidopteran profile by documenting the species found in every Montana county. So far, Mat Seidensticker, Carrie Voss and Marian Lyman Kirst have combined to survey 52 of 56 counties, identifying almost 3,000 species.
“So we’ve found three for sure, potentially five new species,” Seidensticker said. “We’ve produced hundreds, at this point, state records of moths we probably would expect here but nobody had found them yet, and scores and scores of new county records.”
By the end of next year’s field season, the Montana Moth Project will have trapped insects across the ecologically diverse state, from the west’s wooded, mountainous regions, to the high desert in south-central Montana and the Great Plains regions of the east.
“We’ve really increased our knowledge about moth distribution, not only in Montana, but also within the western United States,” Seidenstecker said.
The project is conducted under the aegis of the nonprofit Northern Rockies Research and Educational Services, of which Seidensticker is the executive director. Voss is a field biologist and Lyman Kirst is a Billings-based entomologist who also does program development for the group
The project began for Seidensticker in 2015. He was working with the MPG Ranch in the Bitterroot Valley, which was studying nocturnal insect eaters like common poorwills, flannelated owls, nighthawks and bats.
In 2017, to understand what the animals were eating, the researchers decided to build their own DNA database of regional moths, known as DNA metabarcoding. Just in that small area, they identified 300 species of moths. Then by collecting scat samples from owls, bats and nighthawks, they could identify which insects were on each species’ diet and when.
After the information was posted to citizen science sites like iNaturalist, Seidensticker got a call from Chuck Harp, who manages one of the largest collections of insects in the West at Colorado State University’s C.P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity. Harp wanted to include the Montana records in his season summary report.
In conversations sparked by the connection, Harp validated a lot of what Seidensticker was thinking, including that Montana was a historically uncollected state when it came to moths.
“Then it just snowballed from there,” Seidensticker said. “We finally decided we ought to do the whole state, and the Montana Moth Project was born.”
According to its website, the Montana Moth Project’s goal is “to document the diversity, distribution, abundance, and ecology of moths in Montana through scientific research, education and citizen science.”
Mixed into that, the Moth Project wants to find out how wildfires affect the species.
“It is well known that wildfires create unique habitats, but little is known about the roles moths play in shaping them,” the project’s website stated.
While collecting moths, the project recently found one new species and is waiting for final approval of two others. Entomologists identify new species by dissecting their genitalia, which are specific.
The first new species, identified in a June scientific journal by co-authors Lyman Kirst and Washington State University professor Lars Crabo, was Protogygia pryorensis. The moth was captured by Lyman Kirst last year near the Pryor Mountains, south of Billings, a unique and complex landscape known for rare species of plants.
Lyman Kirst was allowed to name the bug, and decided to honor “that little spot of high desert” in the moth’s name.
“For me, that landscape is so intimately tied to my upbringing in Montana and how I view this place,” she said, noting that was where she took her children on one of their first day hikes, where she learned how to drive and received her first kiss.
A working theory is that the Pryor moth is a relic species, once more widespread but now – due to loss of habitat – is concentrated in a small geographic area of about 7 acres. So far, the team has only collected males.
“It’s a very striking moth, but I’m biased,” Lyman Kirst said.
The brown and gray moth has white, delicately fringed wingtips. Its two forewings are spotted and multihued with browns, black and white. The hindwings are solid gray. The front portion of its body, the thorax, is highlighted with black, behind which its fuzzy tan abdomen extends. Overall, it is less than a half-inch in width.
Unlike a moth, Lyman Kirst is quick to shun the spotlight, pointing to her colleagues and volunteers as more important to the work.
“While the core team is small, the survey effort depends on myriad volunteers, collaborators and partners, such as with our curatorial and taxonomic expert, Chuck Harp, with Colorado State University and the C.P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity, to which we send our specimens,” Lyman Hirst said. “Chuck has an amazing team of students and other volunteers who help him process, label and digitize our many thousands of specimens.”
In addition, volunteer citizen science crews in Billings – one at the Montana Audubon Center and one at ZooMontana – have contributed thousands of specimens over the past three years to the project.
She also credits her parents, Tom and Jennifer Lyman, who led her on explorations of the Pryors as a child. Tom is a mapping specialist with an interest in geology, and Jennifer taught ecology and botany at Rocky Mountain College.
“I just loved going out to the high desert,” Lyman Kirst said, adding she found old bullets, fossils, arrowheads and pictographs while roaming the Southwest-like region. “It just felt so strange that we were only an hour-and-a-half outside of Billings.”
So when Seidensticker suggested she find unique landscapes to trap moths, Lyman Kirst didn’t hesitate.
“Oh baby, I know exactly where I want to go,” she said.
Lyman Kirst is happy to be able to bring some attention to a region she loves, as well as honor those who helped her explore the area, including Dick Walton, a former Rocky physics professor and co-founder of the Pryors Coalition, an environmental group created to protect the region.
“You don’t have to be a professor or a PhD to find this stuff,” Lyman Kirst noted. “There’s so much to discover.”
Of course, it helps to like bugs and not be freaked out by flying insects.
The moths are collected at night. Lights are set up to attract the insects. A sheer sheet, collapsible clothes hamper or pieces of clear plastic intercept the moth on its way to the light, and it crashes into a 5 gallon bucket with a funnel on it. Inside the bucket, egg cartons help keep the bugs separated so they don’t descale each other. Instructions for building your own moth trap can be found on the Moth Project website.
“What time they fly in, how they fly and land tells you a lot,” Lyman Kirst said.
After a night of trapping, the bugs are gassed with ethyl acetate and dumped into a cake pan lid where they are identified and separated. This is where the ability to identify different patterns comes in handy. When in doubt, the experts call Lars Crabo for help. The Washington state resident specializes in moths and has identified more than 50 new species.
Crabo also spreads praise, saying it was Harper who figured out the Pryor moth was new, he just “honed it down.”
Growing up in Sweden, Crabo was introduced to moth collecting and took it up after his family moved to Minnesota. He said it’s akin to bird watching, noticing the subtle beauty of different species.
“The other part of the charm is being out in the woods,” he said.
June, July and August tend to be the peak moth collecting months, although some species may be out as early as February.
“We’re just getting one little survey at one little point in time,” Seidensticker said. “I’m looking at this as a 20-, to 30- to 40-year deal until I can’t go anymore. It’s always contingent on our relationship with … Colorado State and the museum down there” to deposit the collection in. … It’s kind of a lifelong endeavor and the flagship program of my little nonprofit.”