Pull open any of the numerous drawers in zoologist Mark Mello’s Massachusetts office, and you’re bound to find rows of meticulously labeled moths, from the psychedelic Jones moth (Thaumatographa jonesi) to the Melsheimer’s sack-bearer (Cicinnus melsheimeri). Mello is the Research Director of the Lloyd Center for the Environment in Dartmouth, a regional hub of coastal research and education. Identifying insects such as these is an integral part of his efforts to monitor the ecosystems of southeastern New England.
Lloyd Center for the Environment Research Director, Mark Mello
Under Mello’s guidance, interns, volunteers, and students help capture butterflies, count piping plovers, and assess the status of endangered species on soon-to-be developed lands. It’s this kind of outdoor activity that got Mello hooked on ecology as a kid growing up in the nearby city of New Bedford. Science Friday recently spoke with the gregarious Mello about moths, conservation, and how tromping around your own backyard can foster the scientist within.
Science Friday: When did you know you wanted to become a scientist?
Mark Mello: Probably since the age of four, when my next-door-neighbor handed me this big, baggy thing—which was a Cecropia cocoon—and just said, ‘watch this.’ My parents stuck it in an aquarium in my room, and three months later, when a big six-inch moth that looked like a Persian rug hatched out of that cocoon, it was probably the neatest thing I had seen at that point. Between that and the fact that my father was an avid hunter and fisherman, and we were always out in the fields, the woods, the streams, somewhere, I got a very early immersion in nature and natural history.
Did you have a scientific idol while you were growing up?
It’s interesting—when I was younger, I was in a mixed class of 4th and 5th graders. There was a 5th grader who was actually a couple of years older than me, and he was just totally into natural history and science. He had all these books, and he really introduced me to finding things in the field in a different way. Up until that time, if I saw something, I was like, ‘Oh that’s neat,’ but didn’t really go out and investigate.
Mark Mello places the baffles and cover on a moth trap that the Lloyd Center has operated since 1983 as part of a long-term census.
I think it was very important because I could literally just walk out my backyard, jump over the stone wall, and I was out in fields and shrublands where there were plenty of areas to explore as a kid. And as I got older and could actually take a bike out, I could just expand my search area.
How did you become interested in ecological conservation?
When I was a kid, two of my favorite haunts got destroyed. One got turned into a development that we’d always go to and poke around. And another one—that was behind the New Bedford Airport—I guess it had been a gravel operation at one time, and there were several ponds and so forth dug at various depths. Some were real shallow, and they had a whole variety of habitats—great places to see all kinds of snakes, turtles, and plants. When I was in high school, somebody drowned in one of the ponds, and for some reason, they just dug everything out and made one giant lake and connected it up to a previously existing lake. That kind of ruined it as far as biodiversity was concerned.
In your work at the Lloyd Center, you’ve caught more than 700 kinds of moths over the last 20 years. We’ve got to know—do you have a favorite species?
I like the Luna moths. I’ll put that species up against any moth, anywhere in the world, for sheer attractiveness. The look, the gracefulness, the wings, the colors—the colors are just exquisite, they’re so delicate. And the moth lays black eggs, which you wouldn’t expect, cause black pigment doesn’t feature prominently on the bug.
Do you think moths are misunderstood?
Most people, when they think of a moth, they think of something eating their clothes. They don’t even realize people go out and collect them. I used to, when I was a lot younger. I would set up sheets with a black light and stay out until one or two in the morning and then take all my stuff home. At least once a year, I’d come out of the woods and there would be a police car with its flashers on by the car where I had it parked. They’d ask, ‘What are you doing’—ya know, same conversation. ‘Oh, I’m looking for moths.’ And they’d go, ‘Moss? What do you want moss for?’ ‘No, MOTHS.’ And by then they’d just look at me and say, ‘License and registration.’
Even though they’re frustrating to catch, I really enjoy dragonflies and damselflies. They really don’t get going until 10 o’clock in the morning, and by four they’re just about done, so you can kind of work bankers’ hours!
Melsheimer’s sack-bearer. Courtesy of Mark Mello
How do kids who visit the Lloyd Center react to the nature that surrounds it?
Well, certainly for suburban and city kids who don’t have any place to explore, in many cases the Lloyd Center is the first place where they’ve been able to go out and do that, and they’re all enthusiastic, like, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.’ It’s just neat to see them get unhooked from electronics—even for a short period of time—and get out and observe.
Does helping with fieldwork make people more conscientious about conservation?
It at least gets them invested in something they might not have even thought about before. If they’re working with it, then they have some sort of investment.
When you’re not doing research for the Lloyd Center, what are you doing?
Because we’re a small non-for-profit, a lot of the inventory I work with—particularly with moths and butterflies—are things that are grant-driven, and it might not be a spot that I would’ve gone to otherwise. So, sometimes I’ll run off to some place where I always wanted to collect. Arizona is one—I just love the Southwest and the Arizona Sky Island region. For the past three years, I’ve been able to take a couple weeks at the end of August and run out there during monsoon season and see what biological diversity there is.