Once a month, on a day close to the new moon, the environmental association Vita Nativa have started bravely setting out into the pitch black heart of the Ria Formosa in search of ‘borboletas nocturnas’, which literally translates to ‘nocturnal butterflies’, but are, of course, what we in English call (somewhat less romantically) ‘moths’.
Under the cover of darkness they lay out their trap which, as far as I can tell, consists of a box with a light bulb on top. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but the basic idea must be that any passing ‘nighttime butterflies’ see this bright glowing orb and well, ‘like a moth to a flame’ are irresistibly drawn to it. This gives any budding lepidopterists (entomologists who specialise in the study of butterflies and moths) the opportunity to take a closer look, and perhaps even ‘shine a light’ on hitherto unknown facts about this fair and fluttery nightlife.
In other European countries moths are already a widely studied group, but in Portugal, although there are more than 2,700 known butterfly/moth species, there are still huge gaps in knowledge about such things as: what the most common species are, where best to find them, as well as how they evolve throughout the year.
You might think that the study of moths doesn’t seem all that important, but Vita Nativa begs to differ, and says that small insects like these are actually fantastic ‘bio-indicators’ of the health of an ecosystem in general, and at present, they are unfortunately the least studied form of fauna in Portugal.
But not for long. Taking inspiration from what’s called ‘The Garden Moth Scheme’ in the United Kingdom, which is a citizen science project where anybody with a lamp and the inclination can contribute to the ever growing database of knowledge, a similar scheme has recently been set up here in Portugal.
It’s called the ‘Rede de Estações de Borboletas Nocturnas’ (Network of Nocturnal Butterflies), and so far 16 stations have been set up all over the country (and indeed even on Madeira island), and Vita Nativa has just joined the first one to be set up in the eastern Algarve, at Quinta de Marim in Olhão.
On their first foray into the darkness on the 13th of January this year, Vita Nativa managed to attract 6 individuals of 5 different species. Quite low numbers they admit, but Vita Nativa says this is normal for the time of year and when things start to heat up in the spring, they expect to attract up to 100 individuals in a single session. So far the station itself has recorded a total of 55 different types of moth, and who knows, Vita Nativa said hopefully - maybe this year they will even discover a new species themselves.
For updates on the environmental associations after hours adventures, as well as information on the varied other projects they have on the go to help study and conserve nature and wildlife here in the Algarve - follow them on Facebook at the ‘Associação Vita Nativa’, or simply go to their website vitanativa.org.