Volunteers welcome for moth study at Chatham's Eden Hall campus
Ryan Utz has been studying entomology a long time, so little about the observation of moth species he's leading at Chatham University's Eden Hall campus surprises him.
However, volunteers or visitors to the LED-lit plywood biodiversity monitoring station where more than 150 moths may gather on a good night are almost always taken aback, he said.
“They're always surprised by the critters they end up seeing that they've never seen before, even if they've lived here their whole lives,” said Utz, an assistant professor of water resources at the university. “The sheer diversity and what you see out there once you start going out and looking throws everyone off.”
Utz is gathering data on the different species of moths in the area as part of a larger project called Discover Life. Started in 1997 by John Pickering, a retired professor at the University of Georgia, the project engages the community to create a worldwide encyclopedia of flora and fauna.
There are roughly 1,250 species of moths in Pennsylvania and they expect to identify about 850 in Allegheny County. Already at the Eden Hall station they've identified 175 species, Utz said.
The biomonitoring being done at the campus is a little different from a normal science study in which there's a question or a hypothesis to start. In this case, Utz said, the data gathered over the long-term will lead them to the studies.
For instance, in a few years they may find that species once found only in warmer climates are slowly creeping north, or that species now commonly found in Western Pennsylvania may be less common several years from now as the moths react and adapt to a changing climate.
“Or, when we have enough data we may see that one species has a strong link to the lunar cycle, while another species does not,” he said. “Or we could see that rainfall patterns and humidity affect the relative abundance of certain species. The idea is to collect as much data as possible, and then the questions will come after the fact.”
The study of moths is important, Utz said, in part because much less is known about them as their more popular cousin, the butterfly, and the moth serves an important role in pollination and the food chain.
They collect data daily, and Utz said they're always in need of more volunteers to help out. The process is simple: using a camera they provide, just snap a photo of the moths that flock to the board. Utz and several students with whom he works will then upload the photo to the database for identification. No experience with entomology or even photography is necessary, just the desire to show up around 5 a.m. during the summer and then just after sunset in the fall, winter and spring when the temperatures have not yet dipped to where the moths become more inactive.
To get involved, contact Utz at RUtz@chatham.edu or 412-365-1326.
Karen Price is a Tribune-Review contributor.