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A Moth Named Barbara

Dunedin’s Dr Barbara Anderson, who is passionate about all things moths, has just had a species named after her. Ichneutica barbara is a moth within the Noctuid family, which is one of the largest moth families in the world.

The local common name for the family Pepe Whānui (broad or wide) refers to the large bodies and sturdy wings of the Noctuids (think B52 rather than spitfire).

Ichneutica barbara is a new species but one which has been represented in collections for at least 35 years. All this time, it has been hiding in museum collections lumped in with similar species and misidentified usually as ‘Aletia’ inconstans, which was an early name for Ichneutica sistens.

Ichneutica barbara is locally abundant on the Otago Peninsula and appears to be more widespread and more common than its North Island sister species Ichneutica omicron.

An important part of being a species is being able to mate with other members of your species; this is called the biological species concept. In moths, it often means that their sexual parts need to match up like a lock and key. The group of species that I. barbara is one of are mainly distinguished by unique modifications of the male genitalia but luckily, I. barbara also has an external distinguishing feature – a yellow fluffy bottom. The male I. barbara has a yellowish anal tuft whereas I. omicron’s anal tufts are common or garden grey.

Dr Anderson was described in Dr Robert Hoare’s recently published revision of New Zealand Noctuids as having “worked tirelessly to promote the study of Moths” and the truth of this is revealed when she talks about her current projects.

At the moment, she is working at Otago Museum as a Royal Society Rutherford Discovery Fellow, reviewing the Museum’s significant collection of the insects. The fellowship is run through the Royal Society Te Apārangi and funds a five-year research project. Dr Anderson’s focuses on how interactions between species in small thermal areas with cooler microclimates, such as gullies or southern aspects, might affect the way our ecosystems respond to climate change. “Then ultimately, how we might adjust what conservation to prioritise to reduce some of the landscape-scale effects of climate change,” explained Dr Anderson.

Dr Anderson also leads Ahi Pepe MothNet, a project with a focus on weaving pūtaiao (science), taiao (environment), toi (arts) and te reo Māori together through engagement with moths. Along with connecting teachers, students and wider whānau with nature and science through the study of moths, there are workshops and resources developed to encourage this interaction, such as regional moth guides and instructions for experiments based on moth ecology.

New Zealand is a rich region for scientists studying moths. There are almost 2000 species of moths here and 90% aren’t found anywhere else in the world, one of the highest rates of endemism for any group anywhere, meaning there is a lot to learn about these parts of New Zealand’s ecology, and Dr Anderson is an essential contributor to this work.

The best part about the naming of Ichneutica barbara is that Dr Anderson found out while browsing in Spotlight, an appropriate place for moth-related news!