As thousands gather for the twelfth Moths Night on Saturday conservationists are warning that Britain’s moths have been reduced by a third. While British moths are in decline, one of the rarest species in the world, the Sandhill Rustic has been saved by University of Exeter’s geneticists
“We are using genetics on the Sandhills to try and figure out why some moths form small unique populations are then threatened with extinction,” Professor Richard Ffrench-Constant told the studentguradian.
The moth can be found at Loe Bar, a shingle beach situated south of Porthleven in Cornwall, an area designated as a site of special scientific interest and home to over fifty rare plants and invertebrates, one of which is the Sandhill Rustic moth, Luperina nickerlii leechi Goater.
Conservationists from Butterfly Conservation believe that urbanisation of the countryside is contributing to the falling moth population. "The total abundance of moths has fallen by 44% in southern Britain since the late 1960s, probably due to the destruction of habitats at the hand of intensive agriculture and forestry, and urbanisation. Climate change and light pollution are likely to be implicated in the declines too. Without moths and other insects, the whole of biodiversity starts to unravel," Richard Fox, Surveys Manager at Butterfly Conversation told the studentguardian.
Scientists at the University Exeter’s Tremough Campus, Cornwall and the environmental consultancy Spalding Associates based in Cornwall, believe that studying the population of the rare moth will provide information that will help save it from extinction.
"We’re pooling Cornwall’s expertise and resources to try to protect this unique moth. This is a great example of the University working with a local company on a really ground-breaking piece of research. We have ambitions to create a centre to further develop our research on the environment and sustainability so our links with companies like Spalding Associates will become even more important in the future," said Professor Richard Ffrench-Constant of the University of Exeter’s Tremough Campus.
While sub-species of the Sandhill Rustic have been found elsewhere in Britain the Cornish specie has different coloured wings and it is this variation that has triggered the interest of micro-biologists and environmentalists alike.
"This small brownish moth may not look special but is perfectly adapted to living in this hostile environment, exposed to winter gales and summer drought, and is a key part of the biodiversity of Cornwall," said Adrian Spalding, Director of Spalding Associates.
The research will attempt to sequence multiple moth genes and involve DNA marking to identify differences between the Sandhill Rustics found at Loe Bar and those of its closest relatives.
Understanding the difference between the two related species should shed some light onto how this little moth has adapted to survive a notoriously stormy coastal environment such as Loe bar.
Despite the breakthrough recent research suggests drastic falls in the insect’s numbers, which not only affects the moths, but the bats that feed on them. “Rothamsted use light traps to measure moth numbers, so the data is ok and they estimate a 30% decline over recent years,” says Professor Ffrench-Constant.
Conservation groups are hopeful that if the reason for the variation between the Cornish Sandhill Rustic moth and those found in other parts of Britain can be identified they can ensure the conditions that created the new species are maintained and benefit Britain's wider ecology.
"Moths make up a substantial part of Britain’s biodiversity with over 2500 species. They are an important part of ecosystems, pollinating plants and acting as a major food source for many other creatures including most of our garden birds," Richard Fox said.
Photograph reproduced with kind permission of Spalding Associates