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Discovering the butterflies of the night

Dr Barbara Anderson is proving to Otago schoolchildren that science can be fun, relevant and interesting through a project called MothNet Shedding Light on the Night

The Landcare Research scientist is like many others who lead science engagement projects – absolutely passionate about getting science into the community. View the story of 5 June 2016 on Māori Television.

Giving us clues

“Moths and butterflies are great indicator species for environmental change because they have short lifespans and a wide range of dispersal methods,” says Dr Anderson.

“In addition, they are an important food source for native birds, there are lots of them, we can trap them easily and get an abundance of data. Yet, we still know little about New Zealand moth species.”

Dr Anderson saw an opportunity to use participatory science approaches to look at moths as she had noticed, via family connections, that children in more rural schools often didn’t have access to much science equipment. Participatory science is where communities and scientists can work together on projects, involving scientific research, that are meaningful to that community.

What's out there?

MothNet Shedding Light on the Night: Nocturnal Biodiversity in the Otago Region, is one of four projects currently funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) under the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) Otago Pilot, regionally managed in a partnership led by Otago Museum. The PSP is currently being piloted in three areas: South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago.

In a collaboration with a number of schools across Otago, Orokonui Ecosanctuary and the University of Otago, Dr Anderson and other Landcare scientists are providing schools and communities with the tools to learn about moth trapping and to answer two related questions:

1. What is the distribution and ecology of moths in the Otago region?
2. How does artificial lighting influence moth species richness and relative species abundances within the Otago region?

Providing equipment

“With MothNet we are getting real science equipment into schools at low cost and in a library system, where they can keep the moth traps as long as they are using them,” Dr Anderson says.

“Each school is being given two Heath traps and a kit of all the necessary equipment for studying the moths, including pins and identification sheets. They will trap moths at least one night per month over several months. One trap will be placed in an area with existing artificial lighting and the other in a similar environment, but with no existing lighting,” she says.

The moths will be attracted to the traps using a small solar cell battery-powered light and additional data such as humidity, temperature and wind speed will be recorded.

Connecting the students across Otago with each other and with the scientists to discuss what they are finding is a strong focus of MothNet, including a comprehensive website and a Facebook page. All the data is also being collected into the biodiversity observation site Naturewatch.

Dr Anderson says her aim is “to build capacity, increase interest whilst doing robust science” and is hoping the “cool factor” of heading out at night will make for great engagement with the project.

Dr Anderson hopes that not only will the educators, students and their families come away from the project armed with a greater understanding of biodiversity and science in practice, but that “the mentorship may aid the students towards a greater participation in the Aurora Otago Science and Technology Fair”.

Read about MothNet's new Māori lens on moths and science

Lionel Hotene and student participants.

Participatory Science Platform

The Participatory Science Platform is a Curious Minds initiative, with pilot programmes running in South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago. In 2015, funded projects included conservation, health, energy production, environmental monitoring, crop production and local ecology. Read more

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