The discovery of a new family of moth is one of the most exciting finds in entomology in the past 40 years. It was found not in some remote and unexplored region of Australia, but right in our backyard on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. The island that is only 100km from Adelaide and 13km from the mainland, that has been settled since 1836 and is one of the loveliest destinations for a holiday.
This family of moths (Aenigmatineidae) contains a single genus (Aenigmatinea) and single species (Aenigmatinea glatzella) which, to date, is found at a single site close to the beach on a single type of native pine tree (Callitris gracilis). Details of the discovery were first published earlier this year in the journal Systematic Entomology.
The moth – whose less technical name is the Enigma moth – is small with wings that are about 4mm long, and looks more like a caddis-fly than a moth. Despite their size they are exceptionally beautiful, with the males golden and females metallic purple.
What’s in a name?
The genus name, Aenigmatinea, (along with its common name) reflects the enigmatic nature of the moth’s morphology. The moth has an odd mixture of physical characters that made it difficult to place within an evolutionary framework: its wings and genitalia showed it to be primitive -– but how primitive?
The most primitive moths have jaws, with one of the first steps in the evolution of advanced moths and butterflies being the development of a tongue. Aenigmatinea has neither – its mouth parts are almost entirely reduced.
The solution to the puzzle was to rely on the moth’s DNA and compare its sequence to potential relatives. The answer was intriguing -– the moth’s closest relatives have a tongue and Aenigmatinea has lost its tongue over time.
What about the specific name, “glatzella”? This a little pun of the type that taxonomists often like. The moth’s head is partially bald -– a little male pattern baldness -– and “glatze” is German for “bald head”.
Glatzella also honours the moth’s discoverer Richard Glatz, the South Australian entomologist, who has fallen in love with Kangaroo Island and who for 15 years, in his own time, has documented the island’s insect fauna.
Why the excitement?
Primitive moths, those in which there is a single genital opening in the female, comprise less than 1% of extant lepidopteran species (moths and butterflies), but represent much of its physical diversity. The discovery of a new family of moths tells us about the early steps that led to the evolution of the more typical moths and butterflies, which are more familiar.
Discoveries of new families of anything are a big deal. Families are three rungs from the bottom of the taxonomic ladder -– above genera and species. New species and new genera of moths and butterflies are discovered every week, but it has been 40 years since a new family of primitive moths and butterflies have been discovered anywhere in the world.
The second reason this is exciting is because it highlights what a special place Australia is and what a special responsibility we have to take care of it. In Europe it is a big deal to identify and name a new species of moth; in Australia, we have tens of thousands of new species to name, and untold numbers of species that remain to be discovered.
This picture is duplicated, to a greater or lesser extent, for virtually every insect order. With so much collecting and naming to do before we have a good picture of our insect fauna, how can we possibly make informed decisions about which areas of our environment merit protection.
This discovery is also exciting because it highlights the importance of citizen science and the interplay between people working in a private capacity and professional researchers.
The authors on the paper describing the new moth are a miscellany of characters. Richard Glatz is professional entomologist but has a private passion for the insect-life of Kangaroo Island. Andy Young is not professionally trained, but is a superbly gifted field-worker, who also lives on Kangaroo Island, with a great eye for unusual moths.
Richard and Andy were insightful enough to know they had discovered something interesting and generous enough to know they needed additional help to develop the discovery into a paper.
In 2009 they sent the only two moths they had collected to one of us (Ted Edwards, who works in an honorary capacity at the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC)).
Realising the moth was unique, we sent it to Denmark to Niels Kristensen, the guru of primitive moth taxonomy, at the University of Copenhagen, who recognised it was a new family of moths.
A team of collectors from Australia and New Zealand, some professional entomologists and some experienced but self-trained amateurs, then joined Richard and Andy on Kangaroo Island to find additional specimens required for production of a scientific paper.
Researchers at the Department of Zoology at the University of Melbourne generated DNA sequences of the moth, which were then analysed in Finland. With these data, the moth was formally described by Niels and Ted and they produce their paper over a six month period, with emails sent back and forth across the world.
The paper was accepted late in 2014, a few weeks before Niels Kristensen passed away, a life tragically cut short with so many projects remaining uncompleted.
Having a major scientific paper produced collaboratively by private individuals and professional scientists is unusual. But surely this is a recipe to repeat and who knows what other insects may be discovered in Australia’s back yard.