Na­ture /

Latitude Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS & IM­AGES An­nie Studholme

A fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the 2100 species of moth and but­ter­fly found in our back­yard

New Zealand has the high­est rate of unique or en­demic but­ter­fly and moth species any­where else in the world, and yet most peo­ple rarely get an op­por­tu­nity to see them as in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion forces their habi­tats fur­ther up into the moun­tains and other re­mote places.

For al­most 50 years Christchur­ch ecol­o­gist, en­to­mol­o­gist and re­spected au­thor Brian Pa­trick has de­voted his life to re­search­ing Lep­i­doptera species through­out New Zealand, Aus­tralia and the Pa­cific. He’s made it his life’s mis­sion to en­cour­age New Zealan­ders to take an in­ter­est in our sig­nif­i­cant but­ter­fly and moth fauna to en­sure it’s pre­served for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. But de­spite his tire­less work, the av­er­age New Zealan­der has lit­tle idea about the crea­tures flut­ter­ing along our des­o­late, rocky coasts or high up in the moun­tains.

Most Ki­wis think New Zealand has just two but­ter­flies: the white cab­bage, and the self-in­tro­duced monarch. Mean­while, mis­un­der­stood moths are deemed as noth­ing but a do­mes­tic in­con­ve­nience. Delve deeper though, and

New Zealand is an ex­tra­or­di­nary place to study, col­lect and pho­to­graph but­ter­flies and moths, says Brian.

Brian first be­came fas­ci­nated with moths and but­ter­flies as a 10-year-old boy, grow­ing up in In­ver­cargill. ‘I don’t know what ig­nited my pas­sion,’ he says. ‘I’m just driven to know about the un­known. I’m in­ter­ested in ev­ery­thing that’s there, not just moths and but­ter­flies, but the whole ecol­ogy. Where they are found and the pat­tern of dis­tri­bu­tion. What they are feed­ing on, the rocks, the plants, other in­sects and how they in­ter­act. It just cap­tures my imag­i­na­tion.’

Brian still has the hand­writ­ten records of his first trip on 1 Jan­uary, 1970, to Bob’s Peak be­hind Queen­stown. Since then, he has un­der­taken more than 3860 sep­a­rate bug hunt­ing trips, dis­cov­er­ing more than 100 new species, nam­ing many of them, in­clud­ing a re­cent pub­li­ca­tion de­scrib­ing a tiny moth he dis­cov­ered in his lunchtime in the Christchur­ch Botanic Gar­dens. He al­ways car­ries an empty tube in his pocket for such oc­ca­sions.

The moth is the first South­ern Hemi­sphere rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a genus that feeds on the small-leaved shrub Teu­crium in both hemi­spheres. Brian and a col­league named it Sab­u­lopteryx botan­ica to cel­e­brate its dis­cov­ery in a botanic gar­den.

Glob­ally, there are more than 350,000 known Lep­i­doptera (Greek mean­ing ‘scaly wings’) species, 20,000 of which are but­ter­flies. There are around 2100 species of moth and but­ter­fly in New Zealand, found mostly in the South Is­land. Of those, more than 2000 are moths, and 90 per cent are found nowhere else in the world. To­day, there are only 58 recog­nised but­ter­fly species in New Zealand, of which only 39 are en­demic to New Zealand; the rest are blow-ins (the monarch) or ac­ci­den­tal in­tro­duc­tions.

Cu­ri­ously, New Zealand’s en­demic but­ter­flies all be­long to only two (cop­pers and ad­mi­rals) of the five su­per­fam­i­lies of but­ter­flies world­wide, says Brian. ‘New Zealand lacks na­tive skip­pers, whites and swal­low­tails, but the two groups of but­ter­flies we do have are pretty spe­cial. It’s just the way things hap­pen. Even small Pa­cific is­lands have all five. It’s amaz­ing.’

Cop­pers are a genus of small or­ange but­ter­flies, with a cer­tain species of boul­der cop­per among the world’s small­est, with a wing­span of less than 2 cm. The largest New Zealand cop­pers have a wing­span of 3 cm. No­tably, they are found on every con­ti­nent ex­cept South Amer­ica and Aus­tralia, but their num­ber and diver­sity are un­ri­valled in New Zealand. Found na­tion­wide, four are con­fined to the North Is­land, while 22 are found across the South Is­land. Cop­per lar­vae are par­tic­u­lar feed­ers, feed­ing only on our five na­tive species of pōhue­hue (Muehlen­beckia), ex­plains Brian.

New Zealand also hosts three types of ad­mi­rals, more than any other area world­wide. To put it in con­text, North Amer­ica, Hawaii, Europe and Aus­tralia each only has one. Yel­low (which we share nat­u­rally with South Aus­tralia) and red ad­mi­rals are wide­spread on the main­land where there are net­tles which the lar­vae eat and live on, while the Chatham

Is­land ad­mi­ral is con­fined to the re­mote, ex­posed archipelag­o.

While many of the large groups of highly evolved moths are also ab­sent in New Zealand, it’s home to many unique and prim­i­tive species, in­clud­ing an an­cient moth fam­ily (Mne­sar­chaei­dae) that is unique to New Zealand, and an­other, Mi­cropte­rigi­dae, that evolved long be­fore flow­er­ing plants and uses its jaws to grind fern pollen rather than sip nec­tar, which is only found here and in New Cale­do­nia, ex­plains Brian.

While they are com­monly known as ‘moth’ and ‘but­ter­fly’, there is no sci­en­tific ba­sis for the terms, says Brian. ‘There is an evo­lu­tion­ary con­tin­uum from the most an­cient moth group to the most so­phis­ti­cated but­ter­fly group. Some moths are more closely re­lated to but­ter­flies than to other moths.’

There are, how­ever, some gen­eral dif­fer­ences be­tween the two, he says. ‘Moths usu­ally hold their wings flat while rest­ing, have feath­ery an­ten­nae, and are ac­tive at night. But­ter­flies tend to be more brightly coloured, have clubbed an­ten­nae, hold their wings erect while at rest, and are ac­tive by day. But there are ex­cep­tions to th­ese gen­er­al­i­sa­tions.’

Some New Zealand moths, es­pe­cially those in the alpine zones, are brightly coloured and fly dur­ing the day, while some but­ter­flies are un­re­mark­able. New Zealand’s largest moth is the prim­i­tive puriri (Aene­tus virescens) moth, a mem­ber of a group of moths com­monly known as the ghost moth, which is found hid­ing deep in North Is­land forests, boast­ing a wing­span av­er­ag­ing 10 cm (for males) and 15 cm (for fe­males). In the South Is­land they are rep­re­sented by many large Ao­raia moths, some with short-winged and flight­less fe­males.

Like other an­i­mals in the Lep­i­doptera or­der, the life cy­cle of moths and but­ter­flies is fairly uni­form, ex­plains Brian. Be­cause of their short-lived lives as adults (two weeks is longlived), their fo­cus is on re­pro­duc­tion. Adults must quickly find a mate and fe­males must find a suit­able place on plants or other sur­faces to lay her eggs. Lar­vae hatch from the eggs (cater­pil­lars), then grow and meta­mor­phose from pu­pae into adults. The pe­riod of me­ta­mor­pho­sis (where the larva en­cases

There are around 2100 species of moth and but­ter­fly in

New Zealand, found mostly in the South Is­land.

it­self in a co­coon or chrysalis while its wings grow) may last a few days or a few months, emerg­ing at the end as an adult.

Sadly, there’s a grow­ing body of anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that sug­gests many of our na­tive but­ter­flies and moths are in de­cline, through habi­tat loss, weed in­va­sions and pests such as the Ger­man and com­mon wasp. There is a lot be­ing done for kiwi, kauri and kereru, but there are many peo­ple for whom those species are out of reach. But­ter­flies are gen­er­ally all around us, wher­ever one lives. The plight of our but­ter­fly fauna is heav­ily de­pen­dent on hu­man re­spect if they are to sur­vive and thrive. Yet many of th­ese lit­tle beau­ties are tee­ter­ing on the edge of sur­vival, says Brian.

With­out but­ter­flies and moths, many of our na­tive flow­er­ing plants could also be at risk as they are the pri­mary pol­li­na­tors, he adds. ‘They are ex­cel­lent botanists. It’s a nice lit­tle sym­bio­sis, but be­cause it hap­pens mostly at night, in the case of moths, peo­ple don’t see it hap­pen­ing. Most plants rely on it to re­pro­duce. We cer­tainly don’t know all the an­swers, but we need to work as a team to come up with re­al­is­tic so­lu­tions. It’s about achiev­ing a bal­ance.

‘The South Is­land is the six­teenth big­gest land­mass and tenth high­est on earth with just one mil­lion peo­ple, whereas Java is the sev­en­teenth big­gest with more than 92 mil­lion peo­ple; so we have no ex­cuse not to look af­ter na­ture,’ he says.

The plight of our but­ter­fly fauna is heav­ily de­pen­dent on hu­man re­spect if they are to sur­vive and thrive.

RIGHT / Brian’s learnt you have to be ready. His ve­hi­cle is al­ways packed and fully stocked for the next field trip.

LEFT / Since 1970 Brian has un­der­taken more than 3860 sep­a­rate trips, dis­cov­er­ing more than 100 new species. It is painstak­ing work.

TOP / Brian out col­lect­ing spec­i­mens in the field. Photo sup­plied.

ABOVE / No­toreas moths, of which there are about 40 species na­tion­wide, are one of Brian’s par­tic­u­lar pas­sions.

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