4 March 2015

Enigma moth helps crack evolution's code

It is less than 10mm long, but the aptly named ‘enigma’ moth recently discovered on Kangaroo Island in South Australia is causing quite a stir.

New 'enigma' moth helps crack evolution's code:  Less than 10mm long, the aptly named 'enigma' moth recently discovered on Kangaroo Island in South Australia is causing quite a stir. Aenigmatinea glatzella – with iridescent gold and purple wings – it is a 'living dinosaur' that represents an entirely new family of primitive moths. This is the first time since the 1970s that a new family of primitive moths has been identified anywhere in the world.

Show transcript

[Screen displays movie title 'A new moth species discovered. Aenigmatinea glatzella The 'enigma' moth' in white letters on black background.]

[ Music plays as artists hand holding a pigment pen moves rapidly across the screen sketching the outline of the enigma moth, labelling morphological features as they go. ]

[Artist then uses pencils to colour in the sketch of the moth to represent real life colouring.]

[Artist applies gold flecks with a paint brush to represent the gold scales of the moths wings.]

[Scene changes to a new piece of paper and artist begins drawing the moth again from a different point of view with wings outstretched.]

[Artist uses coloured pencils and gold fleck to colour the moth.]

[Finished moth is then animated to look like the wings are flapping.]

[Scene changes to CSIRO logo and music stops.]

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Aenigmatinea glatzella – which has iridescent gold and purple wings – is a 'living dinosaur' that represents an entirely new family of primitive moths. This is the first time since the 1970s that a new family of primitive moths has been identified anywhere in the world.

The moth was unveiled today as part of a launch of a foundation to support research into Australian moths and butterflies, and the moths and butterflies in CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra.

The enigma moth lives on Southern Cypress-pine trees (Callitris gracilis), a very ancient element of our flora going back to the supercontinent Gondwana.

With wings outstretched the adult moths are about the size of a five-cent piece. They are covered in scales that appear gold and purple, and the edges of their wings have feathery fringes.

The adult moths are short-lived. In just one day they emerge from their cocoons, mate, females lay their eggs, and then die.

Australia is thought to be home to about 22,000 species of moths and butterflies, of which about half have been named.

CSIRO researchers played a key role in identifying the moth and helped to unlock dramatic insights into the evolution of moths and their butterfly cousins.

An international team of professional researchers and enthusiasts collected and described the moth, which has so far only been found on Kangaroo Island.

According to CSIRO's Dr Ted Edwards, who was jointly responsible for describing the new family, by studying the moth's appearance and analysing its DNA the team has revealed that the evolution of moths and butterflies is even more complex than previously thought.

"While the discovery of this new moth strengthens the evolutionary relationships between other primitive moth families, it also suggests that tongues evolved in moths and butterflies more than once," Dr Edwards, an Honorary Fellow with CSIRO's Australian National Insect Collection, said.

"Our fauna is so exciting we can still find new primitive species. Australia is so rich in moths that vast numbers still remain to be discovered."

CSIRO's Australian National Insect Collection is the world's largest collection of Australian insects and related groups. It is a nationally and internationally significant research resource that contributes to our understanding of biodiversity, and supports research in evolutionary biology, ecology, biosecurity and natural resource management.

The paper describing the new family of primitive moths from Australia is published in the latest edition of Systematic Entomology .

Additional resources

Images

  • A female adult 'enigma' moth on a Southern Cypress-pine stem. Download image

    A female adult 'enigma' moth on a Southern Cypress-pine stem. Image: George Gibbs

  • Dr Ted Edwards holding a tray of moth specimens from the ANIC. Download image

    CSIRO's Dr Ted Edwards, who was jointly responsible for describing the new family of primitive moths.

  • Pinned specimen of the enigma moth. Download image

    The 'enigma' moth represents an entirely new family of primitive moths.

  • Dr Ted Edwards inspecting a tray of specimens in the ANIC. Download image

    Dr Ted Edwards at CSIRO's Australian National Insect Collection.

  • Hand holding a pinned specimen of the enigma moth. Download image

    With wings outstretched the adult ‘enigma’ moths are about the size of a five-cent piece.

  • Looking down a vegetated valley with a river running through it. Download image

    The 'enigma' moth has so far only been found at one location on Kangaroo Island, South Australia.

  • Map of Australia with Kangaroo Island circled. Download image

    The location of Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of South Australia.

Audio

  • Download audio

    What is the new 'enigma' moth?

    Dr Ted Edwards describes the 'enigma' moth and the research into its origins.

    View transcript
  • Download audio

    Why is the discovery of the 'enigma' moth exciting?

    Dr Ted Edwards explains how enigma moth DNA has provided evidence that the evolution of moths and butterflies is even more complex than previously thought.

    View transcript
  • Download audio

    What can we learn from collections?

    Dr Ted Edwards talks about the value of collections and how they help underpin research in many scientific fields.

    View transcript

Background information

Australian National Insect Collection

CSIRO is the custodian of several collections of animal and plant specimens that contribute to national and international biological knowledge. One of these is the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC).

Recognised both nationally and internationally as a major research collection, ANIC is the world's largest collection of Australian insects and related groups, housing over 12 million specimens and growing by more than 100,000 specimens each year.

Australian Lepidoptera Research Endowment

The endowment is a private foundation to support research into Australian moths and butterflies, and to support curation of the Lepidoptera collection at CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection. It will be launched in Canberra on 4 March 2015.

The fund will support activities including support for visitors to curate parts of the Lepidoptera collection, targeted collecting trips, taxonomic research, preparation and printing of scientific publications and scholarships to support students.

Expand background information

NEWS RELEASE CONTACT

  • Ms Gabby Russell

    Communication Manager · Communications

    • Phone:
      • +61 2 9490 8002

    Email: Gabby.Russell@csiro.au

  • Dr Ted Edwards

    Fellow · National Facilities and Collections

    • Phone:
      • +61 2 6246 4257

    Email: Ted.Edwards@csiro.au

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