A month into the coronavirus pandemic, photographer Joel Sartore woke up early at home in Lincoln, Nebraska, and went outside to grab the newspaper. Grounded from traveling his usual six months a year, he’d been moping, unsure what to do now that his 2020 trips were canceled.
“I thought, I bet I could stay busy through this pandemic by photographing insects and other invertebrates,” Sartore says. As the founder of National Geographic’s Photo Ark, he aims to document every species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries around the world. (Read how Photo Ark began.)
After that April morning, Sartore recruited two of his grown children, along with his friends Loren and Babs Padelford, Nebraska-based amateur entomologists and retirees who devote their time to photographing insects. The team began combing the farmlands and prairies of Nebraska and five neighboring states for the tiniest of creatures, from ferocious antlions to colorful leafhoppers to spindly assassin bugs. They ultimately added 900 new species to the Photo Ark in a mere eight months.
“That something so vital to the Photo Ark was right under my nose the whole time is just amazing,” says Sartore, who photographed most of the invertebrates on-site, in tents, and released them back in the wild.
As the 11,000th species to be added to this decades-long effort, Sartore chose the long-toothed dart moth, Dichagyris longidens. (Read about the güiña, the mystery cat that marked Sartore’s 10,000th photo.)
After its naming in 1890, the roughly inch-long moth, native to the U.S. Southwest, was largely forgotten. So little is known about it, in fact, that Sartore’s photograph is the first-ever of a live specimen.
“The mammals get all the press—the gorillas, the tigers—but it’s the insects that save us all,” he says, citing their role as crucial crop pollinators and scavengers that break down waste. In the U.S. alone, insects contribute about $70 billion a year to the economy. At the same time, many studies show that insects are also disappearing at a rapid rate worldwide, largely due to habitat loss and agricultural pesticides.
Akito Y. Kawahara, an associate professor and curator of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) at the Florida Museum of Natural History, applauded Sartore’s decision to highlight a moth for this Photo Ark milestone.
“He’s bringing attention to the small things in the world—they’re really underappreciated,” he says. (See 15 pictures of beautiful, misunderstood moths.)
When Sartore and his team captured the long-toothed dart moth along New Mexico’s Pecos River in September 2020, they sent a photo of the mysterious species to Bob Biagi, an editor at the species-identification website BugGuide. His response: “We have been waiting for your image for at least 130 years.”
The long-toothed dart moth is a type of cutworm—small brown moths that look virtually the same. It’s hard even for scientists to tell them apart, Kawahara says, which is why the long-toothed dart moth has been so little studied.
Cutworm moths are so named because their caterpillars emerge from the soil at night and snip the stems off plants, usually seedlings, toppling them over. Some species, such as the army cutworm, are considered agricultural pests, but most aren’t harmful to crops, Kawahara says.
Cutworm moths also help feed bats (they’re particularly “meaty,” Kawahara says) and pollinate night-blooming flowers. Moths’ role as pollinators is often overshadowed in the public eye by butterflies and bees, he says.
Earth is home to about 160,000 known species of moths and butterflies, but perhaps another 200,000 remain unidentified. “There are so many insects that we don’t know much about,” says Scott Bundy, a professor of entomology at New Mexico State University.
New Mexico in particular has many undocumented insect species, in part because it became a state relatively recently, in 1912. In eastern U.S. states, entomologists have been cataloging species for centuries, Bundy says.
“That’s what’s so fun for me—there’s so much still to be learned about what we have here.”
Insect threats—and solutions
Moths and butterflies are disappearing faster than other insect groups, according to a recent study, and many species may go extinct before they can be identified.
Climate change in particular presents a “huge, huge problem” for moths, Kawahara says. Fluctuating temperatures can confuse caterpillars about when it’s time to pupate, and increasingly extreme wildfires can roast caterpillars alive.
Another threat is light pollution. As nocturnal creatures, moths navigate by moonlight, but they can get distracted by artificial lighting, which they end up circling so many times it exhausts them and makes them easy prey, Kawahara says. (Read more about why moths are attracted to bright lights.)
He recently published a study detailing eight simple things people can do to help moths and other insects, such as turning off lights in offices and homes at night and planting native vegetation.
He also encourages people to be curious about the world around them: Go outside with your smartphone, flip over rocks, and share pictures of what you see, he says. Such community-science data can supplement scientific research, particularly during the pandemic when scientists’ ability to work in the field is limited. (Learn more ways you can help pollinators at home.)
“I hope more photographers aren’t just drawn to the charismatic megafauna,” Kawahara says, “but instead realize there’s this extraordinary diversity of incredible animals right in our backyards.”