A team of researchers from The University of New Mexico’s Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB) conducted an inventory survey of the insects and other arthropods of White Sands National Monument, N.M., and sister park, Cuatrociénegas Protected Area, Coahuila, Mexico. They discovered at least 27 new species of arthropods, 10 of which have been formally described by taxonomic experts in scientific journal articles.

Two MSB entomologists leading the research, a MSB research associate, and a former UNM biology undergraduate student described one of the new species of moths from Cuatrocienegas (Callistege clara). Their findings were published in ZooKeys, a journal that works to accelerate biodiversity research.

The article, The Lepidoptera of Cuatrociénegas Protected Area 1. A new species in the genus Callistege Hübner, [1823] (Erebidae, Erebinae, Euclidiini) from the Chihuahuan Desert, Coahuila, Mexico, details their find, one of 27 new species of insects in a multi-year survey of arthropods in White Sands National Monument and Cuatrociénegas Protected Area.

The research team included UNM entomologists, collection manager David C. Lightfoot and professor Kelly B. Miller, then undergraduate  student Nicholas Homziak, graduate student Karen Wright, and MSB research associate Eric Metzler. Homziak was a UNM undergraduate biology student who is now a graduate student at the University of Florida pursuing his PhD and interest in moths. Wright was a UNM Ph.D.  graduate student studying with Miller and is now the Ph.D assistant curator for the insect collection at Texas A&M University. Miller served as the official UNM Principal Investigator, recruiting many of his undergraduate and graduate students to help with the project.

Metzler is a research associate of the Division of Arthropods at UNM’s MSB and a retired moth expert, now living in Alamogordo, NM. Metzler has been conducting his own National Park Service funded inventory survey of moths of White Sands National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns National Park for the past 15 years. He has discovered around 20 new moth species so far at those two parks.

This project was funded by the US National Park Service, through White Sands National Monument, which is a sister park to Cuatrociénegas in Mexico. Both are unique Chihuahuan Desert basins with gypsum sediments and gypsum dunes. White Sands is well known for its rolling white dunes. Cuatrociénegas doesn’t have as many dunes but has hundreds of pozas, or ponds and spring-fed streams across its desert landscape.

catching moths
Capturing moths

Lightfoot pursued the initial communications with White Sands National Monument and wrote the grant proposal for the arthropod inventory project. The grant was awarded to the Division of Arthropods, MSB, Biology Department, at UNM.

“Our research team from the Division of Arthropods, Museum of Southwestern Biology, was primarily responsible for discovering all of the new species, along with the National Park Service that funded the project, and the taxonomic experts from around the world, who identified the specimens that we collected. None of us could have done this individually, it is truly a team effort,” Lightfoot said.

“The more we know about the world around us, the better we can manage and conserve natural resources, such as insect species, and all of the other species that those species interact with. Healthy ecosystems rely on all species within, each has an ecological and biological role, each is a component of a larger interactive system."

David Lightfoot, UNM entomologist and Museum of Southwestern Biology collection manager

The team used a variety of methods such as nets and lights to trap the insects and other arthropods in both terrestrial and aquatic environments. Determining whether their finds were new species can be complicated. So experts like Metzler and the other outside taxonomic experts were recruited to make the determinations. Lightfoot is a taxonomic expert on crickets and grasshoppers, and he sampled and identified those, discovering 12 new species. Miller is a taxonomic expert on water beetles and other aquatic insects, and he sampled and identified those. Homziak was an upcoming moth expert and worked with Metzler to identify moths. Wright is a bee expert and sampled and identified those, and Mathew Leister, a UNM undergraduate student at the time, and now an MSB research associate, sampled and identified scorpions and spiders, along with former collection manager Sandra Brantley. Another graduate student at the time who assisted with the project, Heidi Hopkins, is a cockroach expert and she identified and described a new species of sand-roach that she found at Cuatrocienegas (Arenivaga gumperzae).

Pinning moths
Pinning moths

“Arthropods are by far the largest group of organisms on the planet, with over 1 million know species, and likely another 1 million unknown or new species yet to be identified, compared to about 43,000 known vertebrate animal species on the planet. Arthropods range from crustaceans, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, about 150,000 known species, to the vast numbers of about 1 million insect species. No one person could ever know all arthropods or insects. The study of arthropods requires specialization on a manageable group of taxa that one can gain knowledge and expertise on over their careers,” said Lightfoot.

Lightfoot found another new moth species at White Sands. He observed the 1 centimeter (just under a half-inch) white moth flying short distances over the sand surface of dune crests during the day, which is unusual for moths that are mostly nocturnal. He photographed and collected several specimens, and then sent them to Metzler, who thought it may be new. Metzler sent specimens to another moth expert on that genus of moths, who recognized it as a new species. Metzler and Lightfoot wrote and published the species description of it.” The new moth species is named Areniscythris whitesands.

“The other moth Callistege clara that Nick, Eric, Kelly and I described was a species that came to lights at night set out to attract night flying insects by Nick on a field trip to Cuatrociénegas. Nick recognized the moth as unusual, and sent it to Eric, and Eric recognized it as a new species. We all then helped to describe the new species of moth with Nick and Eric taking the lead,” Lightfoot added.

A new species of darkling beetle was named after Lightfoot. The beetle, now named Trichiotes lightfooti, was found at Cuatrocienegas by Lightfoot, and named for him by colleagues.

“It’s a real honor to have a species named after me,” Lightfoot remarked.

The approximately 10,000 arthropod specimens that were collected, curated, and databased have been added to the collection at the UNM Museum of Southwestern Biology and the international online arthropod database Symbiota Collections of Arthropods Network.

“Humans have much to learn about arthropods of the world. The more studies like this one that are funded and implemented, the more we learn,” he observed. “The fact that we found 27 verified new species among only the target taxa groups, which represent only about 20 percent of the arthropod taxa that we sampled, indicates that there are many unknown species yet to be recognized, just at these two parks. Insects and other arthropods have been studied extensively in Europe and the eastern United States, but not other parts of the world. There are many discoveries yet to be made before we have true knowledge and understanding of the natural world that we live in.”

The Museum of Southwestern Biology hires and trains many UNM undergraduate and graduate students about the roles of natural history museums, and how to conduct fieldwork to sample plants and animals, and laboratory methods of specimens preparation/curation, databasing specimen information, along with training on why and how to conduct inventory and sampling studies.

“This project is just one of many that the MSB has conducted over the years, employing and educating hundreds of UNM students, many of them, like Nicholas Homziak who go on to achieve expertise themselves,” he pointed out.

“The more we know about the world around us, the better we can manage and conserve natural resources, such as insect species, and all of the other species that those species interact with. Healthy ecosystems rely on all species within, each has an ecological and biological role, each is a component of a larger interactive system. In order to understand how a large interactive system works, we must know its components,” Lightfoot said.

He continued: “The National Park Service is expected to manage the natural resources of White Sands National Monument’s landscapes and species, yet they must know what species exist on their landscapes, and something about the ecologies of the species, to manage them. Additionally, newly-discovered species may serve some benefit to humans, such as chemicals for medicine or products, or ecosystem services such as pollination of particular plants. Potential benefits from species will never be realized if we don’t even know that the species exist.”