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Study of Arkansas Tree Guides Scientists to a New Moth Discovery

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, September 30, 2016

Cameraria cotinivoraCuriosity and observation are keys to any new discovery. Such was the case for Dr. Donald R. Davis and Dr. Gary R. Graves, who recently published their research and discovery of a previously unknown species of moth. Both are scientists with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Dr. Graves began studying the American smoke-tree (Cotinus obovatus) about 10 years ago. His studies led him to fieldwork in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, where he noticed signs of insects eating the leaves of smoke-trees. Further investigation led him to the identification of a new moth, Cameraria cotinivora.

American smoke tree full sizeAmerican smoke-tree is in the sumac family, Anacardiaceae, and is native to only a few unconnected areas of the southeastern United States. A large shrub or small tree, it grows to less than 20 feet tall. Historically, the wood was used for fenceposts and for making a yellow-orange dye. When the tree blooms in spring, pale plumes look like puffs of smoke. The oval leaves turn brilliant orange and red in the fall, making it valued as an ornamental. However, its spring blooms are not as showy as the European smoke-tree (Cotinus coggygria) which is cultivated more frequently.

Trees live in community with other plants and animals, particularly insects. Determining the relationships between a plant and insects can be important in understanding and protecting a species. Considering the rarity and scattered populations of American smoke-tree, Dr. Graves wanted to identify the insects that were feeding on the trees he encountered. He noticed the patterns of feeding on the leaves were broad serpentine paths, the kind made by leaf miner moths in the insect family Gracillariidae.

poison ivy leafminerRelated insects often feed on plants within the same plant family. The poison ivy leafminer (Cameraria guttifinitella) is a moth whose larva are known to feed on fragrant sumac (Toxicodendron aromatica) and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), both in the sumac family. The poison ivy leafminer is a small moth, only about 1/4 inch across, with alternating bands of reddish-brown and white edged with black.

Dr. Graves discovered that the larva feeding on smoke-trees grew into moths that looked almost identical to the poison ivy leafminer, but with anatomical differences, specifically the shapes of the reproductive organs in both males and females. Genetic studies also revealed significant differences between the two moths. Graves observed the moth feeding on the smoke-trees was a related, but distinct species, never before identified. The new moth species has been named Cameraria cotinivora, derived from the name of the smoke-tree host plant, Cotinus, and vora, meaning to eat or devour. So far, Cameraria cotinivora has only been found in three counties in north-central Arkansas and one county in south-central Missouri. American smoke-trees in other locations have yet to be studied and examined for leaf mines of Cameraria cotinivora.

Photos -- Top left:Cameraria cotinivora, used with permission, (c) 2011 Jean-Francois Landry, Canadian National Collection, Top right: American smoke-tree (Cotinus obovatus) in bloom, photo by Steven J. Baskauf,, (c) 2002 Steven J. Baskauf Available under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License. Bottom left: Poison ivy leafminer moth (Cameraria guttifinitella)

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