Why moths? Why not moths. This online guide is based upon a biologic survey performed by BR Environmental in 2012 and 2013. The moth group was chosen because the taxa that they belong to, Lepidoptera, provides a relatively accurate snapshot of the ecological health of Troy Meadows. Very few taxa can function so efficiently at gauging the environmental quality of the landscape like nocturnal Lepitoptera. In order to emphasize this crucial point we offer the following explanations as to why analyzing moth diversity can provide a barometer reading of current fitness inherent with the resource:
- Adult moths and their caterpillars are food for a wide variety of wildlife, including other insects, spiders, frogs, toads, lizards, shrews, skunks, bats and birds, therefore they are of high value in food webs.
- Moth species have an incredible diversity of life history requirements. It's not a case of one size fits all. Having a complete insect life-cycle is about the only common theme one can derive from the group. With 160,000 species world-wide, 2,200 +/- found in New Jersey, the life style and phenology (timing of life history events) of each species vary like the geometry of snowflakes.
- From the latter it should be obvious that if an area supports a large number of different species representing a good cross section of Lepidopteron families than chances are many interspecific biological associations have formed. In other words food webs, nutrient cycling, and other ecological services are solidified.
- Moth caterpillars have a great impact on plants by eating their leaves. This had led to many types of plants evolving special chemicals to make them less appealing to caterpillars to limit their damage. Moths in the adult stage also benefit plants by pollinating flowers while seeking out nectar, and so help in seed production. This not only benefits wild plants but also many of our food crops that depend on moths as well as other insects to ensure a good harvest.
- Moths play a vigorous and dynamic role in ecosystems as nutrient recyclers. Moths can easily be used to illustrate the flow of energy released by their relentless consumption of living, senescent, and dead coarse organic material in a natural system. Moth larvae, commonly known as caterpillars, are especially good examples of primary consumers, specifically herbivores, as many species feed directly on the leaves, stems, flower heads, seeds, and roots of plants (primary producers). Caterpillars are "shredders" – they break apart coarse organic matter, releasing carbon into atmosphere (carbon cycle), and enriching soil as they reduce plant parts into humus where smaller "detritavores" can do their part.
- Not unlike a canary in a coalmine, moths in many ways are the meteorologists of the environment. Monitoring the ecological status of this guild can give us vital clues to changes in our own environment, such as the effects of new farming practices, pesticides, air pollution and climate change.