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iBOL benefits from Dick Wilson’s passion for moths

iBOL collaborators come in many guises. There are museum curators, university professors, field researchers, post-docs and grad students. And then there's Richard Wilson, also known as the Moth Man of Bay Center, Washington, one of the growing band of "citizen scientists" whose work is helping to drive progress towards iBOL's ambitious goals.

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Wilson, owner of an oyster and clam farm in central Washington, is a moth enthusiast. "Most people say - 'oh yeah, moths, they're brown, they fly at night.' But that's not it at all. Their patterns, their subtle colors … they're beautiful."

Wilson should know. He's been collecting and examining moths every morning since 2005 and contributing specimens to the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding since 2009. So far, he has captured and recorded over 400 different species.

"This is a hobby," he said, "but I get pretty involved with my hobbies. I started bird watching some years ago but I ran out of birds."

He won't run out of moths. There are more than 2,000 known species in the United States. Also, "they're interesting - they don't bite, they don't sting, they don't make a mess" and he can collect them right from his front porch.

Wilson has a PhD in geology and an extensive understanding of zoology and paleontology, so he finds the taxonomy of moths fascinating. "Every night, spring through fall, I capture around 30 or 40 moths, then I might select out three or four to look at more closely," he said.

"I'm excited every morning to see what I've got in my traps. There's always the chance to find something different." His efforts have already doubled the number of known species in Pacific County, Washington, and added significantly to barcodes of North American Lepidoptera on Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD).

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Wilson is a member of the Moth Photographers Group, hosted online by Mississippi State University, and his Flickr account features images of many of his front-porch finds. After his morning review of traps, selected moths go into small pill bottles in the refrigerator. "The cold slows them down but it doesn't hurt them," Wilson said.

"My goal is to take a close-up photo to see if I have something unique. The macro image works as my microscope for comparison of types. The traditional mounted, dried moth specimin doesn't have the same vibrancy of color as the live moth. I want to capture as close as I can the natural colors in my photo."

Wilson started his intensive hobby quite innocently. "We have a porch facing east, with a north and west wall and partial fiberglass roof open to the southeast, and a normal compact fluorescent light. So I'd go out in the morning and notice 10 or 20 different moths. At first I thought, well there can't be more than 30 or 40 species, but then I started taking photos and finding reference sites to identify specimens."

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He says that there is plenty of room for other moth enthusiasts to get in the game. "On the beach side of our county, you could come up with a different set of moths than I am finding here on the bay," he said. "Moths are highly mobile - they can go up to tremendous heights and ride the currents."

"There's not a lot known about a lot of animals. That's what makes it interesting," said Wilson. "I think we've lost something in this country in terms of the naturalist - there seems to be a general lack of interest by most about the natural environment. We need people who have a curiosity, people with a personal passion for the natural world."

People like Dick Wilson and his abiding passion for moths.

Adapted from an article by Cate Gable in the July 19 edition of the Chinook Observer.

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