Skidmore students tracking spongy moth spread

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – This summer, Skidmore College is taking a new approach to studying a moth that has spread across parts of the North Country – and brought an appetite with it. The college’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Center for Interdisciplinary Research is mapping the invasive moth’s travel from a birds-eye view.

The GIS center is using satellite imagery and on-foot data collection to track the moth, which has been responsible for a large number of de-leafed trees from the Saratoga area up to Lake George and parts of the Adirondacks. 2021 was a bumper year for the spongy moth – formerly called the “gypsy moth” – and 2022 has seen its own wide share of spread.

Moth worms can consume large amounts of leaf or pine needle matter in a day; which, in the latter tree’s case, can leave deadly results, killing entire trees off. Skidmore GIS Director Charlie Bettigole hopes to get a better idea of the impact in the Saratoga area, as well as Lake George.

“The insect is a little bit mysterious; it booms and busts. It can appear out of nowhere and then disappear the following year,” Bettigole said. “So we’re hoping to gain a little bit more of an understanding because of how intense this outbreak is in our backyard.” 

Bettigole and his summer research assistants – Skidmore seniors Avery Blake and Morgan Foster – are looking at a list of questions. Those include asking why moths prefer some types of trees and landscapes to others; and what the mortality rate looks like for trees in the areas hit hard by the moths.

Spongy moths are controlled by sufficient rain. When enough rain falls, the water stirs up soil-bound pathogens that kill off a large portion of the moth population. Skidmore’s eventual goal is to use GIS and remote sensing to create a predictive model for what the moths do next.

“Ideally, this research will give people a head start in the future when the boom does come again, because it comes every 10 to 15 years. We’re in that cycle right now,” said Blake, a geosciences major. “Usually it’s mitigated after two to five years, so hopefully it’s not as bad next year. But if it is, hopefully, this research can be used to stop the spread.” 

The GIS has been investigating spongy moths since 2021’s outbreak. Student researchers are returning this summer to study sites first identified last year, and adding new ones to the list.

This summer’s outlook has gone through ups and downs. Most recently, Jim Lieberum of the Warren County Soil & Water Conservation District said that things were looking up along some parts of Lake George, with active caterpillars suddenly going inactive and dying off after some early-June rainfall.

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