A $150,000 grant was awarded to assistant professor of geography and geology, Jonathan Thayn, from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate an invasive insect entering Illinois.
Thayn will be taking a team of ISU undergraduate students to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin to study the gypsy moth for the next three summers.
“The gypsy moth is not as dangerous as many other known bugs. This moth moves slowly and always exists in the background, however every seven to 10 years there’s a huge burst of them,” Thayn said. “The moths eat all the leaves off of trees, leaving the tree in danger of dying and potentially killing off entire forests.”
Thayn said his main goal for the grant money is to figure out where the gypsy moth will spread next, so they can be a step ahead and be prepared for the moths to arrive.
The female moth cannot fly, but moves by blowing in the wind, he said.
“We can assume that most bugs will disperse in all directions; however that is probably over simplifying things. Bugs are more likely to follow a climate they enjoy or a river for example,” Thayn said.
Thayn said he wants to determine a variable that will predict the effect of wind on the dispersion of the gypsy moth.
Typically, the most moth damage to trees is caused when larvae hatch, usually in July or August, he said.
“Our goal is to have two groups on two separate islands, hiking through dense forest at this time of year. Small groups will be counting trees that have damage and then compare the data we collect with the satellite imagery we have,” Thayn explained.
If a tree is already sick and gets hit by gypsy moths, losing its leaves will kill it; but if the tree is healthy, the leaves will grow back, he said.
“Then, the once healthy tree starts the next year in a weakened condition. If an originally healthy tree gets hit three years in a row it will die,” he said.
Thayn said he learned how this process occurs by looking at satellite imagery. He said the moths are limiting the amounts of paper and lumber the public gets and is also slowing down the process of natural forests.
“There was a Frenchman who came to the U.S. around the Civil War time trying to create silk; he brought the gypsy moth here. So, it is clear that they have been travelling the country for a long time,” Thayn said.
Thayn said later in his career he would like to study more complex species. The gypsy moth is relatively simple because it travels only by wind.
Thayn does not have a set group who he is taking with him yet, however he has had many volunteers.
“The NSF is impressed I’m taking undergraduate students with me and involving them in research. ISU wants to focus on giving students real, awesome learning experiences conducting real world research,” he added.