Customs officers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport checking the baggage of a passenger arriving from the Philippines found something about half an inch that piqued their interest.
The objects in question – the larvae and pupae of an unidentifiable insect – were inside pods which the passenger said were intended for medicinal tea. Later, scientific tests showed that the agents had targeted a potentially serious threat to the country’s agriculture and natural habitats.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced last week that the pupae hatched a species of moth whose last recorded sighting by scientists occurred in 1912 in Sri Lanka. Experts have confirmed that these non-native insects have the potential to defoliate forests and feast on or contaminate crops.
The moths, whose black and gold dotted wings look like a cloudy pre-dawn sky, were discovered in September and appeared to belong to the family Pyralidae, customs officials said. To determine their exact species, authorities sent the specimens to Mr. Alma Solis, a moth specialist with the Department of Agriculture.
Dr. Solis said in a phone interview that she received a FedEx package on April 19 containing a box with an adult moth and vials with caterpillars and pupae.
“I did my doctorate. on this subfamily; I am a world expert,” she said. “I can identify something with the subfamily almost immediately. Then, it is a question of knowing the literature.
Dr Solis said she is one of four moth research specialists working full-time for the US government who can identify rare or little-known species that arrive at the country’s borders.
In addition to these specialists, there are also agricultural inspectors in the ports who are able to recognize potential threats. In this case, Dr. Solis said she worked with Tyler Fox, a Detroit-based agricultural specialist with US Customs and Border Protection, who knew she was an expert on this. particular type of moth.
“He’s a pretty amazing entomologist,” Dr. Solis said. Mr. Fox, who did not respond to a request for comment, and his colleagues must have extensive knowledge “of almost every agency you can think of,” she said.
“They’re looking at species from all over the world, from many different organisms, and they’re called upon to send them to the right specialist,” Dr Solis said. “It’s just amazing what they find, in my opinion.”
It was unlikely that the moths were smuggled into the country, according to two experts: Jason Dombroskie, a lepidopterist at Cornell’s Insect Diagnostics Laboratory who specializes in identifying moth species; and David Moskowitz, entomologist, environmental consultant and co-founder of National Moth Week, an annual event that encourages people to watch moths in gardens and parks. Mr. Dombroskie and Mr. Moskowitz said the species was too obscure to possess the medicinal or aesthetic value that motivates smugglers.
But the two experts stressed the danger the species could have posed, given the destructive power of other non-native insects.
For example, the gypsy moth (until recently known as the gypsy moth) has become a tree-eating pest responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and mitigation efforts each year, according to the Entomological Society of America.
And scientists fear that the emerald ash borer, an Asian beetle, has the potential to kill 99% of the country’s ash trees.
“The emerald ash borer is native to Detroit,” Dombroskie said. “If we had had an agricultural inspector who had identified this from the start, we could have prevented all of this.
“Could this butterfly be the next multi-billion dollar pest?” he asked, referring to the species found by the customs officers. “Probably not – but it’s possible.”
Identifying these tiny but potentially devastating larvae was “unlikely”, Dombroskie said.
“There’s not much you can know,” he added. “A botanist may not have made this discovery, or a mycologist,” someone who works with fungi like molds and fungi.
Moskowitz said the episode illustrated the importance of animal taxonomy training for customs officers.
“Identifying a moth that had not been found for over a century required great expertise,” he wrote in an email. “Without it, we lose the ability to know what’s around us, how we might protect and conserve species at risk and from invaders.”
With the global supply chain linking countries and travelers moving between world capitals, Moskowitz continued, protecting the country from invading pests “is truly a Herculean task”.