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 Stories for May 6, 1998:

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San Bruno’s Rare Butterflies
Joined by a New Moth Mountain Refuge Assures a Haven for New Insect Species

by Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
posted May. 6, 1998

A tiny moth sporting a Nike-style swoosh on each wing is one of the latest new species to be identified in the Bay Area, say Berkeley researchers, who made the find.

“It might surprise the public in the Bay Area to know there are any new species still being discovered nearby,” said Jerry Powell, an insect biologist and professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “You’re not going to find any new birds here or anywhere – birds, mammals, snakes – but nothing could be further from the truth for insects. Most people don’t know this.”

Called Bucculatrix dominatrix, the moth was first collected just south of San Francisco at San Bruno Mountain, a wildlife refuge already home to three rare butterfly species. A few years later the moth was found at the Ring Mountain Refuge near Tiburon.

“By saving those habitats for what we knew was there, we saved a new species we didn’t even know about,” said graduate student Daniel Rubinoff, who described the new moth. His work was recently published in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society.

Environmentalists have warded off several attempts to develop the San Bruno Mountain wildlife refuge, which is surrounded on all sides by cities: Daly City, Colma, South San Francisco, and Brisbane.

Environmentalists defeated a 1965 plan to slice millions of cubic yards off the top of San Bruno Mountain to provide fill for San Francisco Airport and subsequently brokered a deal to preserve nearly 2,000 acres of open space while allowing some development on the remaining land.

The new moth is one of two to be announced by Berkeley researchers.

The second new species is Bucculatrix tetradymiae, a delicate white moth brushed with gold and found in the Mojave desert.

Both species were reared by graduate students from cocoons collected on shrubs. The Bay Area moth was found on coyote brush in 1983 by three graduate students, David Wagner, James Whitfield and John De Benedictis, and later by Powell at Ring Mountain. The moth has remained since in Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology waiting identification. It measures about 5.5 millimeters along each wing. The desert moth was found in 1993 and is about half as big.

Powell estimates only about two-thirds of California insects have been discovered and categorized. “Out there in the bush are an unknown number of species no one has ever seen,” he said.

Preserving and understanding biodiversity in the insect community is important, said Powell. For one thing, “the more we know about a whole community of insects, the better prepared we are to deal with control of any given insect,” he said, adding that the economic impact of both pest insects and insects that carry disease is enormous for the state.

Also, “if we know as much as we can about biodiversity, we can make wise decisions on how we use the land and where we might make a reserve or hold the land for a reserve,” he said.

He added that knowing what living creatures inhabit a particular area tells us a lot about its evolutionary history.

“Small moths and their relation to the plants around them can answer important evolutionary questions,” Powell said.

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