The National Geographic Society awarded a Florida Museum of Natural History butterfly and moth specialist a $24,000 research grant earlier this month.
Akito Kawahara, an assistant curator at the McGuire Center of Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History, received the one-year grant to do field research in Central America to investigate the tobacco hornworm and relatives.
The tobacco hornworm, or the hummingbird moth, is one of about 200,000 moth species, but it may contain more “hidden” species, Kawahara said.
This brown moth grows about as large as a finger and gets its unusual name from the prominent horn it has on its backside as a larva, said Kawahara, 34.
“It’s a moth you can typically find in your backyard,” he said.
The moth is common in Gainesville, but Kawahara wants to examine different populations. This field research will take Kawahara to Central America.
“I know they’re harmless, but they kinda are scary, especially when it’s a big one,” said 21-year-old East Asian languages and literatures junior Mia Jakubisin.
Kawahara said his use of the moth in a laboratory setting led to his theory of “cryptic” species within the tobacco hornworm. As he was studying the DNA and behavior of the species, he said, he began to notice differences that pointed to possible new subspecies of the tobacco hornworm. If he were to find these new subspecies, it could affect how the moth is used in laboratory studies.