UH Hilo scientists collaborate with UH Mānoa and University of Nevada colleagues to study and name two species of moths native to Maunakea

The moth study is unique and includes behavioral, larval, and expert genetic analyses, making it an especially comprehensive species description. The scientific names assigned to the moth species were decided after careful deliberation and consultation with Hawaiian cultural advisory group.

Moth on silversword flower, arid landscape in background.
The moth Agrotis kuamauna feeds on nectar of the Maunakea silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense sub sp. sandwicense) at approximately 10,000-foot level on Maunakea. Photo by Jesse Eiben.

By Leah Sherwood.
Courtesy photos, click to enlarge.

Two species of moth unique to Hawaiʻi Island have been officially named and described thanks to the long-term collaborative efforts of scientists from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, UH Mānoa and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Jesse Eiben
UH Hilo entomologist Jesse Eiben

The details of the study were published Jan. 20, 2019, in the paper, “Two new day-flying species of Agrotis Ochsenheimer (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) from the alpine summit of the Maunakea Volcano,” available online in the journal Zootaxa, a publication for animal taxonomists.

The moth species, which belong to the family Noctuidae, were given the names A. helela and A. kuamauna to honor their Hawaiian heritage. The moths are unusual in both behavior and habitat—they are day-flying rather than nocturnal and are found on Maunakea at elevations of 9,000 feet and higher.

Matt Medeiros, an evolutionary biologist and visiting scholar at UNLV is the lead author and principal expert in identifying and describing the morphology of the insects. Jessica Kirkpatrick, a graduate of the UH Hilo Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) program, and Jesse Eiben, an entomologist at UH Hilo, along with UH Mānoa scientists Christine Elliott, Andersonn Prestes, and Dan Rubinoff, are co-authors of the paper.  

Jessica Kirkpatrick and Jesse Eiben in the field collecting data.
Jessica Kirkpatrick and Jesse Eiben conduct field research on Maunakea. Archive photo, 2016, click to enlarge.

Illustrations were contributed to the published study by Marleena Sheffield, who received her bachelor of arts in linguistics from UH Hilo in 2017, and who has worked on Maunakea as an entomology assistant since 2012. The process involved creating line drawings from images of the cleared and slide-mounted wings and later editing the ink versions with digital software.

Line drawings of wing venation.
Line drawings of moth wing venation by Marleena Sheffield. A: Wing venation of A. helela. B: Wing venation of A. kuamauna. From article, “Two new day-flying species of Agrotis Ochsenheimer (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) from the alpine summit of the Maunakea Volcano,” Zootaxa, 2019.

The naming and taxonomy   

The scientific names assigned to the moth species were decided after careful deliberation. The research team conferred with the Hawaiian cultural advisory group on the island and worked with Sam Gon, a senior scientist and cultural advisor at the Hawai‘i Nature Conservancy, in order to ensure that the names would reflect a sense of place, language, culture and science.

For the first species, the team settled on the name A. helela to reflect the moth’s diurnal behavior. The Hawaiian term hele lā means to travel by day, as opposed to hele pō—to travel by night.

Agrotis helela, dark fuzzy moth with white stripes on wings, resting on woven material.
An Agrotis helela alights on researchers’ field gear. Photo by Jessica Kirkpatrick, click to enlarge.

The second, larger species was named A. kuamauna in recognition of its presence on the uppermost slopes of Maunakea. The Hawaiian word kuamauna means “spine of the mountain” or “mountaintop.”

Moth in dish in lab. Finger in background for size comparison. Moth is about fingertip size.
Agrotis kuamauna freshly emerged from the pupal stage during lab rearing of larvae to confirm larval and adult species characteristics, as well as growth time. Photo by Jesse Eiben, click to enlarge.

Entomologists had actually been aware of the two new moth species since at least the early 1980s, referring to them informally and unofficially as “Maunakea flying moths.” However, there was no single scientist with the time and expertise to describe the species in a complete and cohesive way alongside other Hawaiian moths of the same genus.

Prestes, who was a graduate student at UH Mānoa in Rubinoff’s insect systematics and biodiversity lab, would observe the moths flying around during the daytime while conducting research on closely related moths. It was only recently that the UH Hilo scientists and their colleagues were able to come together to produce an official taxonomic description.

“There are not enough specialists and taxonomists in Hawaiʻi,” explains Eiben. “Also, you really need a team to describe the species and how it’s connected to the high elevation ecosystem’s arthropod biodiversity baseline. There are just too many species for one entomologist to do it alone. That’s why Matt Medeiros was vital in pulling this study together.”

A harsh environment

The moths’ habitat on Maunakea is described as an alpine stone desert. For humans it presents an unwelcoming landscape compared to the lush rainforests below, but Eiben says that the environment is home to numerous moths, spiders, and the flightless wēkiu bug.

“Back in the 1960s when they were doing the first telescope location assessment, there was no real legal requirement to do environmental assessments,” says Eiben. “They had this idea that this was a barren, alpine stone desert with nothing living there. But when entomologists finally went up there, they found insects everywhere.”

Carrying out entomology research on the summit of Hawaiʻi’s tallest mountain poses a unique set of challenges. It requires a level of physicality and focus associated more with athletes than scientists.

“Before attempting field work on the summit you need to test yourself at 9,000 feet to make sure you’re physically able to do it,” says Eiben. “You have to go slow, take water, and hydrate the day before.”

Kirkpatrick agrees the work is physically demanding.

“To get there, you have to hike up those cinder cones, and that’s kind of intense. You can feel lightheaded at times. You definitely need to know what you’re doing up there,” she says, adding that finding good field helpers is difficult since not all people can manage the physical hike or successfully work at such high elevations.

A robust study

The moth study is unique in that it goes beyond the typical minimum species description, which consists of visual descriptions and comparisons of similar species in the same genus.

“We were able to assemble a robust species description because we have a group of people who all have different specialties,” Eiben says. He explains the publication includes behavioral, larval, and expert genetic analyses performed by Elliot, Prestes, and Rubinoff, making it an especially comprehensive species description.

“It was a group effort, and we were also able to build on the work of previous researchers going back to the 1980s, including entomologists, Hawaiʻi state land managers, and people at the Bishop Museum,” says Eiben, adding that the study also received essential support from several institutions across Hawaiʻi, including the Office of Maunakea Management; the UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management; the UH Hilo Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science graduate program; and the UH Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

Share this story