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Research Project: Systematics of Moths Significant to Biodiversity, Quarantine, and Control, with a Focus on Invasive Species

Location: Systematic Entomology Laboratory

2019 Annual Report

The order Lepidoptera, specifically moths, represents one of the greatest radiations of herbivorous animals on the planet. The research component of this plan focuses on the most economically important groups of moths. Gaps in our knowledge of morphological, biological, and molecular characters, and the paucity of phylogenetic analyses, within many groups in these families combine to slow progress on the development of identification tools for use in pest detection, exclusion, and management, and in the successful implementation of biological control projects. The primary focus of this plan is to remedy some of those shortcomings by making available to a broad audience tools, databases, and images that will facilitate identifications and research over a wide range of economically important groups of moths. Within the Lepidoptera specific taxonomic groups are selected for revision based on specific expertise, the need for revisionary work, and the relevance of the group to American agriculture. This project also includes a service component that draws upon SEL experts to identify specimens for regulatory agencies (often on an urgent basis) and other research agencies and stakeholders, and to maintain and enhance portions of the National Insect Collection. Over the next five years, we will be addressing the following objectives: (1) conduct integrative taxonomic research that wherever possible incorporates larval and molecular data, in addition to adult data, to determine and circumscribe species and manage associated information, as follows: recognize and describe new and/or cryptic species; develop identification keys and illustrations; refine hypotheses of relationships to be reflected in classification; track distributions, and investigate regional host use and specificity of moths that are pests, potential pests, invasive species, and/or species beneficial to U.S. agriculture of Pyraloidea, Gelechiinae, Noctuoidea, and grass-feeding patterns in moths; (2) manage and enhance via fieldwork appropriate segments of the U.S. National Insect Collection to enable morphological and molecular research, mine the associated distributional and biological data for comprehensive databases, and provide identifications as needed; and (3) provide expert/authoritative identifications and generate research associated with specimens submitted by ARS researchers and other stakeholders or intercepted at U.S. ports by APHIS, Homeland Security, and state departments of agriculture for early detection of potentially invasive or novel pests.

This project will undertake research on a number of economically important plant feeding moths. We will generate morphological, molecular (DNA sequences), and biological characters that will be used to test species concepts and hypotheses of relationship among agriculturally important moths. These data also will be used to develop new diagnostic tools (descriptions, images, illustrations, keys) to permit more rapid and accurate identifications. Databases containing scientific names, distributions, taxonomic literature, and host plant and specimen data pertaining to economically important moths will be expanded and disseminated to the user community. These and other taxonomic tools will be made accessible to the public via publications, the internet, and other electronic media. Timely and accurate identifications of moths will be provided, including those intercepted at ports-of-entry by APHIS-PPQ or submitted by a wide range of scientists and regulatory agencies. Portions of the National Insect Collection at the National Museum of Natural History, a vital tool for research and identification, will be maintained and enhanced via fieldwork.

Progress Report
Progress was made on all four objectives and their subobjectives, all of which fall under National Program 304, Crop Protection and Quarantine, Component 1, Systematics and Identification. Efforts focus on the identification of insects that are pests or potential pests of the Nation’s crops and natural ecosystems, as well as exotic insects that could be used as enemies or show potential as biological control agents of invasive plants (Problem Statement 1A). We document progress for Project Number 8042-22000-294-00D Systematics of Moths Significant to Biodiversity, Quarantine, and Control, with a Focus on Invasive Species. This project began recently, in December 2016, and this progress report covers the second year and eight months. Under Objective 1 we made significant progress on our milestones to clarify and delimit four groups of moths: Omiodes, Ategumia, Recurvaria-group, and Argyrosticta. Our research also provided taxonomic resolution and identification tools for pests, invasive moths, and emerging pest moth groups. This research included using molecular tools for the identification of the Old World Bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera, intercepted at U.S. ports that demonstrated the unreliability of host and origin data for screening purposes. This research discovered biological control insect agents against Brazilian peppertree, one of the most aggressive invasive weeds in the United States. We discovered new moth species whose larvae feed on a wide variety of commodities and economically important plants, such as legumes, pineapples, corn, sorghum, sugarcane, nightshade, and including ecologically important, native, North American grasses. Our results also included two chapters in aquatic insect books and description of species new to the United States about aquatic caterpillars. They feed on native and invasive aquatic weeds that are important to the health of U.S. waterways and detection for quarantine purposes. Our team worked to solve taxonomic higher-level relationships in some of the most diverse and economically important moth groups, Noctuidae and Gelechioidea. Our extensive data mining efforts produced taxonomic profiles of plants associated with over 350,000 moth interceptions at U.S. ports to explore patterns and trends over 25+ years. We verified and added over 2,000 additional photographs of gelechioid moth type specimens, their labels, and slide dissections, to the Lepidoptera Specimen Database of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. This resource is crucial to resolve identities of economically important moths. The oldest and largest U.S. collection of a snout moth grass-feeding group, Crambus, was curated and databased to mine biological information about host use. We also collaborated with multiple international teams on projects focused on the evolution of economically significant moth groups. These included a global review of pyraloid fossils, and a study of the Old World stem-borers (Sesamiina) which are primary pests of crop grasses. The latter work combined paleoenvironmental proxies with molecular phylogenetic data to demonstrate an inverse correlation between the diversification of the larvae and that of grasses as a function of temperature and atmospheric composition. Our subobjectives of Objective 1 are closely tied to our Objective 2 to manage and enhance with fieldwork the U.S. National Insect Collection that we utilize for our research and identifications. For example, and as stated above, we enhanced the collections for our research by photographing gelechioid moth type specimens and databasing a snout moth group. The National Collections are also heavily utilized for Objective 3 to provide authoritative identifications to ARS researchers conducting research on moth pests or biological control of noxious weeds, and to APHIS and Homeland Security personnel for detection of invasive and novel pests. In 2019 we provided over 657 URGENT identifications comprising over 1100 specimens submitted by U.S. ports for rapid identification and action on their part.

1. New moth species to combat the Brazilian peppertree. An ARS researcher located at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C., hit both marks of research and intellectual sharing by collaborating with ARS scientists in the Invasive Plant Research Lab in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They discovered insect agents for biocontrol of the Brazilian peppertree, one of the most aggressive invasive weeds in its invaded range. They discovered and described five new species in three new genera of twirler moths from the invasive plants native region. This research provided a better perspective on the diversity of herbivores, how they are related, and host range across an entire moth subfamily.

2. Fighting the Old World Bollworm, a billion dollar threat to U.S. crops. The Old World Bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera, feeds on more than 180 species of plants. It is also the most destructive moth pest, causing billions of dollars in damage yearly, to some of the most commonly harvested crops around the World. With the introduction of Helicoverpa armigera into the New World, the identification of larvae of closely-related species based on host and origin data at U.S. ports was no longer certain. An ARS researcher located at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) Washington, D.C., collaborated with an Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service (APHIS) scientist to develop molecular methods to discriminate Heliothine larvae intercepted at U.S. ports. This study demonstrated the unreliability of currently used data, larval host and origin data, for screening Old World Bollworm.

Review Publications
Graca, M.B., Solis, M.A. 2018. Order Lepidoptera. Academic Press. 325-337.
Stonis, J.R., Diskus, A., Katinas, L., Solis, M.A. 2018. Asteraceae: host of the greatest diversity of leaf-mining Nepticulidae (Lepidoptera) in South America. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. 120(4):856-902.
Sole, R., Gripenberg, S., Lewis, O.T., Markesteijn, L., Barrios, H., Ratz, T., Ctvrtecka, R., Butterill, P.T., Segar, S.T., Metz, M., Dahl, C., Rivera, M., Viquez, K., Ferguson, W., Guevara, M., Basset, Y. 2019. The role of herbivorous insects and pathogens in the regeneration dynamics of Guazuma ulmifolia in Panama. Nature Conservation. 32:81-101.
Stonis, J.R., Diskus, A., Remeikis, A., Solis, M.A. 2018. A Gondwanan Concept of Simplimorpha Scoble (sensu lato): a step toward clarity in the generic diagnostics of global Nepticulidae (Lepidoptera). Zootaxa. 4521(2):151-182.
Heikkila, M., Simonsen, T.J., Solis, M.A. 2018. Reassessment of known fossil Pyraloidea (Lepidoptera) with description of the oldest fossil pyraloid and of a crambid larva in Baltic amber. Zootaxa. 4483(1):101-127.
Miller, G.L., Metz, M., Wheeler Jr., A.G. 2018. What is “there?” Searching for the North American origin of the aphid Appendiseta robiniae. American Entomologist. 64(4):233-241.
Stonis, J.R., Diskus, A., Remeikis, A., Solis, M.A. 2018. The American Brachinepticula gen. nov. and Manoneura Davis (Nepticulidae): a new generic concept based on a reinforced cathrema in the phallus. Biologija. 64(2):99-128.
Stonis, J.R., Diskus, A., Solis, M.A. 2018. Two new Fabaceae-feeding Nepticulidae (Lepidoptera) from the Western Hemisphere, including a potential pest of the economically important Centrolobium Mart. ex Benth. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. 120(4):842-855.
Solis, M.A., Tuskes, P. 2018. Two new species of a Petrophila Guilding (Lepidoptera: Crambidae) from northcentral Arizona, U.S.A. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. 120(3):593-604.
Goldstein, P.Z., Janzen, D.H., Hallwachs, W., Proshek, B.T., Dapkey, T. 2018. Review of Lophomyra Schaus species newly associated with ferns and the transfer of Lophomyra commixta (Schaus) new combination (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). ZooKeys. 788:135-165.
Goldstein, P.Z., Janzen, D.H., Hallwachs, W., Proshek, B.T., Dapkey, T. 2018. Revision of the fern-feeding Chytonidia Schaus, 1914 (Leucosigma Druce, 1908 new synonymy) with a key to adults and a description of 5 new species (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae). ZooKeys. 788:87-133.
Kergoat, G., Condamine, F.L., Toussanit, E.A., Capdeviell-Dulac, C., Clamens, A., Barbut, J., Goldstein, P.Z., Le Ru, B. 2018. Testing the Neogene grassland hypothesis: opposing macroevolutionary responses to environmental changes in grasses and insects. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 9(5089).
Villegas-Lujan, R., Felipe-Victoriano, M., Keegan, K., Solis, M.A., Sanchez-Pena, S.R. 2019. Identity and first report of the four-spotted moth, Palpita quadristigmalis (Lepidoptera: Crambidae), as a pest of Japanese privet, Ligustrum japonicum Thunb. (Oleaceae) in Mexico. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. 121(2):290-298.