THE PHILODORIA PROJECT

 

 

Chris is currently working on his PhD in the Kawahara Lab of Insect Systematics in the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, University of Florida. His present research explores the interactions between rare and endangered plant and insect species from the Hawaiian Islands. Of particular interest are the endangered leaf-mining micromoths in the genus Philodoria (Lepidoptera: Gracillariidae).  The group includes 30 species that are only known from the forests of the Hawaiian Islands. Most Philodoria species’ caterpillars are monophagous, feeding internally within the leaf of a single plant species. The genus as a whole, however, is known to feed on as many as 12 different endemic Hawaiian plant families – a remarkably diverse host plant range for a single group. Approximately 75% of the group’s host plants are threatened or endangered, making these moths particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. A comprehensive study of Philodoria has not been conducted since their original discovery nearly a century ago, and the evolutionary history and conservation status of many of these moths remains largely unknown. 

One of the many new Philodoria species we've found during this project.

A sampling of the intricate mine patterns Philodoria species make on some of their Hawaiian host plants. The process begins when an adult moth lays an egg on the leaf surface. Once the caterpillar emerges from the egg, it immediately burrows into the leaf, where it will begin to tunnel. As the caterpillar feeds, it becomes larger. This explains the general pattern of these leaf mines starting small and gradually growing into a pocket as the caterpillar matures inside. Look closely at each of these leaves, there's a caterpillar inside!

Chris' PhD work explores the evolution of these fascinating moths using advanced molecular analyses, raises awareness in non-science audiences about their life history and uniqueness using novel multimedia dissemination tools and platforms, and collaborates closely with the scientists and conservation organizations of Hawaii to develop methods to ensure Philodoria's continual study and long-term protection.

A Haleakala Silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum) on the rim of one of earth's most massive volcanoes. This plant is a relative of a known Philodoria host plant. It's unclear, however, whether Philodoria mines the leaves of this quintessential Hawaiian plant. But upcoming surveys plan to find out! 

For a quick look at Chris' photography from his fieldwork, view the Philodoria gallery. Chris also occasionally posts updates from the field on various social media platforms, which you can find in the media links on this site.

Chris on the sea cliffs of northern Molokai (Molokai Land Trust). Several Philodoria species inhabit these rocky precipices.