USAO’s ‘Moth Man’ Grabs Statewide Attention

Thursday, June 22, 2006

CHICKASHA – For Rex Moore, research subjects come in small packages … with wings.

An award-winning biology senior at the University of Science and Arts, Moore is grabbing the attention of the scientific community. So far, he has discovered 36 new species of moths in Oklahoma. He has collected nearly 3,000 moths in the past two years. And he is the first person in the state to focus on new moth species in 80 years.

“1926 was the last time any kind of dedicated survey was done for moths by the WPC for the state,” Moore says. “I am the only one now doing a dedicated survey for the moths of Oklahoma.”

Dressed in olive pants, a sleeveless fleece vest and a ball cap, Moore looks a little unkempt and completely unassuming. He likes to check moth species spellings. He tells funny stories. He is quick with ideas and answers questions with a genuine sparkle. This guy loves hunting moths.

“To me, the discovery is exciting,” Moore says. “It is a rush.”

In a recent statewide competition for research and presentation at the State Capitol, Moore placed in the top three. Undergraduate students from all over the state use posters and presentations to compete each year at the Research Day at the Capitol. The award was a first not only for Moore, but for USAO as well.

His exhibit, titled The Moths of Oklahoma: The Discoveries, the Concerns and the Economic Impact on Oklahoma Agriculture and Forestry, was selected as a third-place cash prize winner from among 22 students representing 16 Oklahoma institutions. Scientific research topics for the day were as varied as tornado detection, milk production and cancer treatments.

Each year, several students are hand-picked by the state’s colleges and universities to showcase areas of science, technology, mathematics and engineering and their local impact. State legislators served as the primary audience for the event, and several representatives visited students from their own districts, including State Rep. Susan Winchester (R – Chickasha), who stopped to congratulate the biology student.

Initially, Moore started researching mosquitoes, but he quickly realized that the field was full. One night, the moth idea hit him square in the face – literally.

“I was hunting for mosquitoes when WHAM!, I got hit in the face by this hawk moth,” he says. “It hit me full-blast at 40 miles an hour … it just about knocked me to my knees.”

In 1966, Moore earned a GED from Dixon High School in Ardmore. He joined the military, was married and started raising three children. After 26 years of patrolling oilfields as a safety officer and yard superintendent, and because of the uncertain future of oilfield work, Moore decided to return to school. He earned an associates degree in science from Cameron University and is currently working on a double-fielded biology degree at USAO with a minor in chemistry.

And ever since his late-night collision with the hawk moth, Moore has been a moth guy. At USAO, Moore has been gaining notoriety on campus for his research.

“All the kids in the college know that I collect moths, so I get tons of stuff brought in to me,” he says. To his disdain, it has earned him the moniker “Moth Man.”

But that’s how many of his discoveries are made, including his first find, which landed him a mention in the Journal of Lepidoptera News. Discovered in Oklahoma City, a student brought him a Sphingicampa hubbardi moth, which is new to Oklahoma. Moore researched the moth and realized that it was the first recorded sighting of the species. Previously, the moth had been found only in U.S. places like Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

What brings so many new moth species to Oklahoma, and where are they coming from? The senior science major says there are several things that the state has to offer the winged creatures, especially those from nearby locales.

“Most are coming from border states,” he says. Some of them are coming from Mexico and even South American countries.

“One is a Black Witch, originating from the Bahamas, blown here by the hurricanes,” he says. “Because of our temperature and humidity, they are becoming permanent members.”

Researching moths is no simple task. Moore is working on a degree day calculation for the state’s moths that could help farmers anticipate – and annihilate – crop destruction caused by moths.

“Certain insects hatch at certain temperatures and certain humidities,” he says. “If you know that specific temperature and humidity, and use certain tools, then you know that you may be very close to a hatch. You inspect your plants because you want to be able to spray during their first instar – their first molt – that’s the best way to kill them out.”

Degree days enable these kinds of calculations. But degree days differ from state to state, based on temperature, humidity, growing seasons, types of crops grown and each different species and its diet. Essentially, every insect species has its own unique degree day.

“We don’t have that for Oklahoma right now,” Moore says. “I am working on that formula now.”

But not all research is geared toward pest control. Every flora and fauna specimen he finds is updated with the Oklahoma Natural Heritage Inventory, and photos of moth discoveries are sent to the Oklahoma Biological Survey at the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, in addition to Oral Roberts University’s Dr. John Nelson, the state coordinator for the Lepidoptera community for species identification and preservation.

In the future, Moore hopes for support from the university to help with electrophoresis, or DNA mapping, for state moths, insects and the “bugs” they carry with them.

“We’ll be looking to see what bacteria and viruses these new moths are bringing into the state and how they affect the biology and ecology of Oklahoma,” he says. “A lot of plants are affected by insects. The beetle boring into the bark brings the virus that kills the tree. The sphinx moth brings the tomato mosaic virus. It’s our hope to find out what viruses they bring and what plants are affected.”

Furthermore, degree day and DNA mapping research of invading insects help spell out their impact on the economic future of Oklahoma’s agriculture and forestry.

And although the subjects are small, research is no tiny job.

“There are about 14,000 species of moths in the U.S.,” Moore says, “probably 5,500 species in Oklahoma.”

Fortunately for Moore, moth research isn’t all science and technology. Some of his fondest memories are past moth hunting trips with USAO buddies like Dr. Mike Mather, professor of biology.

“Dr. Mather and I were up in Black Mesa State Park enjoying the view of the mountain lion-sized bobcats walking around, looking in the cabin doors, peeking at us,” says Moore. “They were so used to people that they were used to us. They were well-fed, huge suckers looking for dogs … to eat.”

On another outing, Moore and company made a crystal-clear discovery.

“Up at the Selman living ranch nature area, we were up on these canyon walls,” he says. “There are these huge calcite crystals sticking out that look like you’re looking into a clear window that fades away.

“As you walk around the canyon walls, you get a booming effect because of the hollow caves [underneath]. You could stomp your feet and it sounded like drums. You know that you’re walking on a hollow cave 200-300 feet deep. It feels like you’re walking on a drum.”

Moore is proud of his recent award, but his loyalties are apparent.

“This award is not just about me, but USAO,” he says. “We beat out all of OU, OSU and Tulsa and all the research they had … the biggest colleges in Oklahoma. It goes to show that on a limited budget, a small university can do the kind of research any kind of large college with an unlimited budget can mount.”

For now, Moore is focusing on his double degree, plus fundraising for future research.

“I’m sort of taking a break right now because of gas prices,” he said. “Most of my research is happening on campus.”

In addition to past storage facility donations from the university, Moore has drummed up some local support in the form of pediatrician Dr. Pilar Escobar and Charlotte Southerland, hematology supervisor at Grady Memorial Hospital, who have also donated insect boxes and cabinets.

But cash research donors are few, and most of Moore’s storage equipment has been hand built by scraps he and Mather found throughout Chickasha. Gas, food and traveling expenses are out-of-pocket, so Moore says he’s looking for donations of any size to benefit future research.

USAO’s moth man has no plans to flutter away soon. With plans to graduate in fall 2007, and plenty of research to continue, Moore hopes to stick close to the university as long as he can. “When I graduate, I’ll have three degrees,” he says. “I’ll probably end up, in the long run, teaching.”