New UK moth is species of the day

02 September 2010

A new British moth is the Natural History Museum's Species of the day today. While scientists sometimes get records of species new to Britain, it is rare to find ones that are entirely unknown and which, therefore, have never been named.

Adult moth of Ectoedemia heckfordi

Adult moth of Ectoedemia heckfordi © Dr Erik J van Nieukerken

The tiny insect is one of the pygmy moths and has a 5mm-long wingspan. It was officially named earlier this year as a new species, Ectoedemia heckfordi.

The Heckford pygmy moth was found by amateur naturalist Bob Heckford. He spotted the tiny bright green caterpillars in oak trees in the National Trust's Hembury Woods in Devon, in 2004.

Dutch entomologist Erik van Nieukerken and two colleagues from the Czech Republic named and formally described the insect in honour of Mr Heckford.

Specimens of Ectoedemia heckfordi have been donated to the Museum by Mr Heckford, and they will be looked after along with the 6 million other moths in the collection.

Species of the day

To celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity, scientists at the Natural History Museum are writing a species of the day throughout 2010. Today's Heckford pygmy moth is written by Dr Malcolm Scoble, the Museum's Keeper of Entomology. He says, 'Finding a new species of moth is a very rare event in England, even when the insect is so small'.

As well as being an expert on this group of moths, Dr Scoble has another connection. He explains, 'I did my doctoral thesis on the group of minute moths to which this species belongs (the family Nepticulidae). What is more, I was born and bred about a mile from the woods in which this moth was discovered.'

Moths, larvae and leaf mines
Leaf mine of the Heckford pygmy moth

Leaf mine of the Heckford pygmy moth © Ian Thirlwell

There are over 2,400 moth species in Britain. In most, the caterpillars chew leaves, but in some, such as Heckford’s pygmy moth, the tiny caterpillars tunnel and feed between the upper and lower surfaces of leaves in an extraordinarily constrained space. 

This life style is known as leaf mining. It is often possible to identify leaf-mining species from the shape of the channel (mine) they make and the species of plant on which they feed. 

The caterpillars of Ectoedemia heckfordi form their mines in the leaves of the sessile and pedunculate oaks.

Importance of amateur naturalists

As this find shows, amateur naturalists have an important role to play in helping to understand the enormous variety of life on Earth. Scientists have named about 1.8 million species so far but they estimate that there may well be 5 to 10 million still to be discovered.

Bob Heckford’s interest and great experience in natural history, particularly insects, has led him to find other micro moth species that were previously unknown in the British Isles, including one on National Trust land in Cornwall. And in 2006 he rediscovered an oil beetle on National Trust land in south Devon that was thought to be extinct in the British Isles.

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