Apr 26, 2024 - News

What moths can tell us about Austin parks

An image of a moth up close on a sheet.

The arcobara multilineata moth spotted at Pease Park in 2022. Photo: Courtesy of Curtis Eckerman

With just a camera and a UV light, Curtis Eckerman has recorded more than 550 species of moths on the garage door of his South Austin home.

Why it matters: There are nearly 1,400 species of moths in Travis County alone, according to Eckerman, and the bugs can tell us a lot about the biodiversity of our environment.

Driving the news: Eckerman, the Biology Department chair at Austin Community College, will meet students Friday at Pease Park for a mothing expedition.

  • Each semester, Eckerman's biology students take moth surveys — an effort to teach them about monitoring the biodiversity in city parks and to get a better sense of the environmental health of an urban area.
  • Friday's event will be the first time Eckerman has made the mothing expedition open to the public.

What they're saying: "We're using (moths) as a barometer or a measuring stick … to look at how diverse an ecosystem is and how healthy that ecosystem is," he told Axios.

  • "If I have a large diversity of moths, that tells me that I have a large diversity of plants in the area," Eckerman added. "And then, by extension, it tells me I have a wide diversity of potential predators who are going to eat moths and then eat those things that eat moths."

Flashback: Eckerman considers himself a herpetologist — focused on amphibians and reptiles — and didn't pay much attention to the fluttering insects until about seven years ago.

  • "I decided, 'I'm going to learn something new this summer,'" he recalls.
  • He began uploading photos of the moths to iNaturalist, a free app to share observations about bugs, plants and animals.
  • The iNaturalist community helped Eckerman identify the moth species at his home and, "Before I knew it, I was doing it almost every night."

Between the lines: The moths also help us understand how important parks are — not just as a space for community gatherings — but as a place for nature to thrive despite booming urban development.

  • "We can look at the number of species in a park to get a sense of not only what size of a park do (cities) need to maintain that diversity, but also to get a sense of how important those parks are."

How it works: Eckerman and his students will wrap a tree with a white sheet and illuminate it.

  • They'll then take photos of the moths that visit the tree and use iNaturalist to record their observations,

If you go: You don't need a fancy camera to record your own observations. A cellphone works just fine, Eckerman said.

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