Seven moth species new to Iowa found on Luther College land

A research project conducted by Lena Schmitt '20 and Kirk Larsen, professor of biology, has uncovered seven moth species never before found in Iowa.   

Schmitt and Larsen collected a sample of 12,290 moths in Luther College's oak-hickory forests and tallgrass prairies representing 468 species. 99 of these species had never been documented in Winneshiek County and seven of them had never been found in Iowa. Among the seven species new to the state are the carpenterworm moth, the crocus geometer, the mobile groundling moth, the dusky herpetogramma moth and the beautiful sparganothis moth. These findings were recently published in an article in the Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society.

"Many groups of insects besides butterflies or beetles tend to be understudied in general," said Schmitt. "Because of this, in most areas we don't even know what types of moths are around or what type of habitat they prefer to live in."

According to Schmitt, there has only been one intensive moth survey performed in Winneshiek County by Bert Porter in 1908. Larsen and Schmitt's work provides an important baseline from which to build knowledge of the biodiversity present and management of local natural areas. 

"Without knowing what is present, we can't take care of what we have," said Larsen. "This lack of knowledge can pose a threat to our local ecosystems. The presence of a species not previously found can indicate shifts in the distribution of a species due to the changing climate, or even the arrival of a new pest."

According to Larsen, moths are important food sources for many bats, small mammals, amphibians and other organisms and the caterpillars of moths are particularly important food sources for developing chicks of many species of birds. They are also important pollinators of various flowering plants.

The discovery of these species was not only good news for the Decorah area, Schmitt, a student at the time of this project, gained some valuable skills. 

"It was a fantastic opportunity not only for the resulting publication, but also for the experience of writing grants for funding, designing an experiment, troubleshooting problems and following through doing the admittedly tedious work of collecting and processing data," said Schmitt

"Not only did Lena take the lead on writing up the results of this project, she also presented her results at national meetings of the Entomological Society of America in St. Louis, Missouri. In the student research competition that included students from large universities with entomology departments, Lena won first place for her presentation on this moth research. This research project is an example of the quality and kind of transformative experiences that students at Luther College receive that prepare them for careers in science," said Larsen. 

And prepare her, it did.

"It's already had an enormous effect on my career! Very few undergraduate students can say that they've already published a paper in a scientific journal, and that's made me a very competitive applicant for graduate schools and jobs. Even the smaller in-class research projects that are common in the environmental biology courses give Luther students an advantage over students who may have never done hands-on research before and it is great resume material." 

This project has opened doors for future Luther students for years to come. Using this research as a baseline, students will be able to study long-term changes that may occur in moth populations due to habitat loss, climate change or types of management used on the prairies and forests in Iowa.

Luther College is home to more than 1,800 undergraduates who explore big questions and take action to benefit people, communities and society. Our 60+ academic programs, experiential approach to learning and welcoming community inspire students to learn actively, live purposefully and lead courageously for a lifetime of impact. Learn more at luther.edu

Lena Schmitt with one of the blacklight traps used to sample the moth community of Spilde Woods, one of the Luther College oak-hickory forests monitored in this study.
Moths were kept for documentation in the Luther Entomological Research Collection