A customs agent at Detroit Metropolitan Airport noticed a mouth larva something that was just half an inch in diameter while inspecting the baggage of a Filipino passenger.
The objects in question, the larvae, and pupae of unidentified insects were found inside seed pods the passenger claimed were meant for medicinal tea. Later scientific tests revealed that the agents had identified a potential threat to the nation’s natural habitats and agriculture.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported last week that the pupae had produced a new species of moth. This month was last seen by scientists in Sri Lanka in 1912. Experts confirmed that these non-native insects could defoliate forests or contaminate crops.
The moths, whose black-and-gold-dotted wings resemble a cloudy predawn sky, were discovered in September and looked to be a member of the moth family Pyralidae, the customs officials said. The authorities sent the specimens of the moths to M. Alma Solis at the Agriculture Department, in an effort to determine their exact species.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Solis stated that she had received a FedEx parcel on April 19, which contained a box containing one adult moth as well as vials containing caterpillars and pupae.
She said, “I did my Ph.D. in this subfamily; it’s my world expertise.” “I can quickly identify a subfamily. It’s then a matter of knowing the literature.
Dr. Solis stated that she is one of four full-time moth researchers for the U.S government and can identify rare or undiscovered species that arrive at our borders.
These specialists’ mouth larvae are not the only ones who can recognize potential threats. There are also agricultural inspectors working at ports. Dr. Solis stated that she had worked with Tyler Fox (a Detroit-based agricultural specialist with U.S Customs and Border Protection) who was aware of her expertise in this type of moth.
Dr. Solis stated that Mr. Fox is a “pretty incredible entomologist.” She said that Mr. Fox did not respond to a request to comment and that his colleagues must have a broad knowledge of “just about every organism you can imagine.”
Dr. Solis stated that they are looking at the species from around the globe, as well as many different organisms, to determine the best specialist to help them. “It’s amazing to see what they find,” Dr. Solis said.
According to Jason Dombroski (a Cornell lepidopterist who specializes in moth identification), it is unlikely that the moths were brought into the country illegally.]
David Moskowitz (an entomologist and environmental consultant, and co-founder of National Moth Week), an annual event encouraging people to look for moths in their backyards and parks, was also skeptical.
Both Mr. Dombroskie and Mr. Moskowitz stated that the species was too obscure for them mouth larva to have the medicinal or aesthetic value that would motivate smugglers.
Both experts stressed the danger the species could have presented, considering the destructiveness of non-native insects.
According to the Entomological Society of America, the spongy mouse (formerly known as the Gypsy moth) is now a tree-destroying pest that causes hundreds of millions of dollars of damage each year.
Scientists have been concerned that the emerald Ash borer, an Asian beetle could decimate 99 percent of the country’s ash trees.
Dombroski stated that the emerald ash borer was a Detroit native. “We could have prevented this if we had an agricultural inspector who identified it early.
He asked, referring specifically to the species that mouth larva was discovered by customs agents. “Probably not, but it is possible.”
Dombroski stated that it was impossible to identify such small but potentially deadly larvae.
He said, “There is only so much you know.” ” A botanist may not have made this discovery. Or a mycologist, someone who works with mushrooms and molds.
Mr. Moskowitz stated that the episode demonstrated the importance of training customs agents in animal taxonomy.
He wrote that it took great expertise to identify a moth that had not been seen in over a century. “Without this, we lose our ability to see the world around us and how we might be in a position to conserve and protect species at risk or against invaders.”
Given the global supply chain that connects countries and travelers, Mr. Moskowitz said, “protecting the country against invasive pests is truly a difficult task.”