Grant Links Students with Caterpillars, Moths & UConn Scientist

A scientific research grant that includes funding for Greater Hartford schoolchildren to study the legendary White Witch moth has been awarded to UConn’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology by the Richard P. Garmany Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

The $56,520 grant will support three years of research, fieldwork and educational programming under the direction of David Wagner, a UConn professor who has written four books and more than 70 scientific papers on Lepidoptera, the study of butterflies and moths, and their caterpillars.

“Lepidoptera comprise one of the largest branches of the tree of life,” said Professor Wagner. “There are more than 15,000 species of moths and butterflies in North America. In Connecticut, more than 2,400 are recorded. They are barometers for the health of many of the planet’s ecosystems. Plus caterpillar hunting and photography is a great way for families and students to be introduced to scientific study and gain an appreciation of the vast and fascinating diversity of life forms in our backyards.”

A key component of the grant will be a four-day Biodiversity Camp held for 18 children in grades 6 to 8 from the Environmental Sciences Magnet School (ESM) at Mary Hooker, Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford, and other Greater Hartford middle schools. The camp will be directed by teachers Dave Cappaert of ESM and Edmund Smith of Two Rivers.

The camp will focus on the flora and fauna of the area. Participants will collect, raise and photograph caterpillars while learning about the scientific method, biodiversity, DNA and climate change. They will attend classes on scientific illustration and the role of art in science led by internationally renowned artist and naturalist James Prosek. There will be nighttime discovery walks and light trapping for moths and other nocturnal species.

The camp will culminate in a 24-hour BioQuest where scientists, instructors and students will record as many species in a given plot of land as possible over the course of a day. Professor Wagner deems it “a biological race – part contest, part scientific discovery, part education, part fun.”

During the school year, students at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School will rear and study the life cycles of the White Witch and Black Witch moths. Meanwhile a team of scientists including Wagner and Prosek will travel to South America to collect samples.

“The White Witch is poorly studied, largely due to its secretive and exclusively nocturnal habits,” said Professor Wagner. “It is of special interest in that its life history (and thus its caterpillar) remains unknown to science. Because of the moth’s great size, with a wingspan sometimes reaching 12 inches, it has become the subject of many stories and myths in South America.”

The grant will also fund research by Dr. Wagner to update his award-winning book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, which won a 2006 National Outdoor Book Award and is regarded as one of the most authoritative field guides on caterpillars. The 512-page book, with 1,200 color photos, identifies the caterpillars of 700 butterflies and months found east of the Mississippi River.

The grant will support development of a new book, Caterpillars of Western North America. Professor Wagner has already made about 750 larval collections in Arizona, California, Colorado and Texas and established collaborations with scientists from the United States Department of Agricultural and forest entomologists throughout the West. Research for the new book has also gained financial support from Earthwatch, an international environmental organization.

The Richard P. Garmany Fund is named in honor of a former Aetna executive who died in 2008 after creating a donor-advised fund at the Hartford Foundation through his will. A close friend serves as advisor to the fund. Since its inception, more than 125 grants totaling more than $2.8 million have been awarded to regional nonprofits in a variety of fields including culture, healthcare and the environment.

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, established in 1925, is the community foundation for 29 communities in the Hartford region. It is dedicated to putting philanthropy into action to create lasting solutions that result in vibrant communities within the Greater Hartford region. It receives gifts from generous individuals, families and organization, and in 2013 awarded grants of more than $29 million to a broad range of area nonprofits.

By: The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving