I fly around in helicopters—guided by documents that are nearly a century old—to remote Hawaiian rainforests looking for metallic, microscopic moths that may or may not exist. I do this to collect data for my dissertation. Here’s my story.
At some point between when the Himalayas thrust up from sea level and when early humans strolled out of Africa, a moth about the size of an eyelash blew over 2,000 miles of open ocean to land on the Hawaiian Islands, the most isolated archipelago on the planet. The dates may vary slightly and this creature may have taken a couple of millennia-long pit stops at the myriad small rocks that dot the mighty Pacific, but the general story remains the same. Once in Hawaii, a radiation occurred, through which many related (but now exclusively Hawaiian) moth species evolved from the lone colonist, adapting and diversifying to new locations and ecosystems. This story depicts the evolutionary history of Philodoria, the genus of 30 charismatic Hawaiian micromoth species that is the focus of my PhD at the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida.
Very little is known about the Philodoria species. What we do know comes from notes taken in the early 1900s by one of Hawaii’s first insect gurus. Beyond that, Philodoria has received almost no scientific attention. Until my colleagues and I did preliminary surveys in early 2013 that revealed a number of highly fragmented Philodoria populations, most species in the genus were presumed extinct. My research now focuses on the genetics of the Philodoria species as a means to understand how and when they came to be where they are today. To do this, we follow these old documents, tracking down recorded populations but also predicting locations of new, undiscovered species. The fieldwork for this project leads us into some of the most pristine, inaccessible forests on the Islands today.
In addition to their fascinating yet largely untold evolutionary story, what’s equally interesting about these micromoths is their feeding biology. Philodoria caterpillars feed within the leaves of their Hawaiian host plants, tunneling in between layers of leaf tissue, sheltered from both predators and the environment. This intimate physical association means that these moths are profoundly tied to the host plants they’ve evolved on, most of which are also endemic to Hawaii. What’s more is that many of these host plants are threatened, thereby compounding the extinction threat normally posed to Hawaiian biota and making Philodoria an understudied conservation priority.
The ultimate goal of my research is to study Philodoria and their host plant relationships to understand how many species there are, where they are and which ones are most threatened. This research plays a foundational role in directing conservation efforts.
What truly beckons action, as many of you know, are quality-crafted media that highlight what is unique about these creatures and why even biodiversity’s smallest organisms are interesting and important. Thus, raising awareness through photography and film for Philodoria is a major component of my project, made possible in part by the support of organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
The photos accompanying this article have been shot over the course of the first two years of this project, but much of the journey lies ahead of us. Several Hawaiian Islands have yet to be fully surveyed, and it’s likely that the untouched forests atop their volcanoes are home to additional new Philodoria species. To keep up with new developments in Philodoria’s evolutionary story, see media from our Hawaiian rainforest adventures and expeditions, or to learn how you can help, follow these links:
Chris A. Johns is currently earning his PhD at the University of Florida. Native to the tropics, Chris truly values the creative intersections between science and art, especially when it involves large trees, underappreciated animals, and the perspective of one or more human cultures. He one day hopes to be able to call himself a well-rounded naturalist and spends much time thinking about how to share his love for tropical biodiversity with others.