New Research Puts the Spotlight on the Humble, Understudied Moth

Chatham University ecology professor Ryan Utz says a new moon—when the night sky is at its darkest—is a great time to observe moths in the summertime. And it doesn’t take any special technology to get a look at the diversity the moth world has to offer either.

Utz and his students recently set up a four-by-eight-foot white board at the edge of a field and then simply lit it on a dark night to attract some of the 1,500 species of moths that might pay a visit.

“Plenty of species we know very, very little about in terms of their ecology and their life history,” Utz says. “Moths are studied one tenth the amount of time people spend studying butterflies.”

A few of the moths that have been lured in for a photo shoot by Ryan Utz and his students at Chatham University. Photo courtesy Chatham University

A few of the moths that have been lured in for a photo shoot by Ryan Utz and his students at Chatham University. Photo courtesy Chatham University

Utz or a student is here every morning at 5 a.m. to photograph each moth they see on the board.

“Usually if you have an insect, you have to take it into the lab and look at several orders of magnification to even get the genus,” Utz says. “But here, we’re able to get the species just with an image like this.”

The photos are also uploaded to a national database that’s helping track moths across the U.S. and Central America.

“Understanding the ecology of these organisms is important—many moths are pollinators,” Utz says.

Moths also fill other important ecological niches. They eat decaying leaves in forests and are also a key food source for birds, bats and reptiles. Utz says he and others are now interested in understanding how climate change and development could be affecting moths.

To read more about moths and see more of the species Utz and his students have photographed, check out this website.

Reporting by Kara Holsopple

 

Is There a Link Between Fracking and Radon?

Radon, the dangerous odorless gas that occurs naturally in soils and often finds its way into homeowners’ basements, is a familiar concern for people across Pennsylvania. In fact, the state estimates 40 percent of Pennsylvania homes have radon levels above what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers actionable. Nationally, EPA says indoor radon contributes to 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year.

But there is some concern that unconventional natural gas development could be increasing Pennsylvanians’ radon exposure. That’s because gas from the Marcellus Shale—the geological formation feeding the state’s fracking boom—has particularly high levels of radon.

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But just how big a problem is it? To some extent, it depends on who you ask. When the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) tested natural gas at well heads, power plants and compressor stations, it found the gas is contributing only minimally to home radon levels. But when researchers at Johns Hopkins University analyzed nearly a million home radon tests in Pennsylvania, they found that the closer people live to fracking wells, the more likely it was that radon levels were increasing in their homes.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University also took a look at the amount of radon in natural gas coming from the Marcellus Shale. In fact, researcher Elizabeth Casman says she initially even stopped using her gas stove out of fear that the gas could be boosting radon levels.

“We took all the worst cases, and still it came out to a non-scary risk level,” Casman says. “And that’s when I calmed down about cooking.”

Casman says if you’re still worried about it, simply opening a window can help mitigate the risks.

Reporting by Julie Grant