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Idia gopheri, Fall Line Sandhills, western section, Taylor Co., Georgia June 8, 2018. Photo by James K. Adams, Dalton State College, all rights reserved.
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Idia gopheri (Smith, 1899)

Gopher Tortoise Burrow Erebid Moth

Federal Protection: No US federal protection

State Protection: No Georgia state protection

Global Rank: G2G3

State Rank: S1S2

SWAP High Priority Species (SGCN): Yes

Element Occurrences (EOs) in Georgia: 8

Habitat Summary for element in Georgia: subset of Gopher Tortoise burrows


Description

Idia gopheri has a wingspan of about 3.5 cm (inch and a quarter).  The moth has a washed out appearance, with medium brownish forewings and pale yellow irregular antemedian, postmedian and subterminal lines (see photo above).

Similar Species

Idia gopheri is unmistakable.  No other species looks particularly similar (although worn specimens of Idia lubricalis might be confused with this species).  Idia lubricalis is typically a much darker, glossy, less "washed-out" appearing moth (see image below).  

Habitat

This species is a denizen of sandy habitats -- sandhills, dunes, sand prairies -- potentially anywhere where Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) are found (Stillwaugh, 2006; Young and Goff, 1939). Larvae may also inhabit burrows of Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), and perhaps other animals as well (Schweitzer, et al., 2011).

Diet

The reason why I. gopheri is found with Gopher Tortoises is because the larvae feed on the plant/fungus detritus found inside the exit tunnels from Gopher Tortoise burrows. This is not as unusual as it sounds, as larvae of species of Idia are well known for feeding on and among plant/fungal detritus on the forest floor.  The larvae of I. gopheri also apparently feed directly on Gopher Tortoise droppings, which contain significant leaves and stems of grasses that the tortoises feed on (Schweitzer, et al., 2011; Stillwaugh, 2006; Young and Goff, 1939).

Life History

The larva is unremarkable grayish brown.  Apparently in Florida, the moth is continuously brooded, with adults having been found in all months (Stillwaugh, 2006).  In Georgia, records of the adults are between May and early October.

Survey Recommendations

Surveying sandy areas where there are secure populations of Gopher Tortoises is the most reasonable and reliable survey recommendation for Idia gopheri.  Indeed, all of the counties where the moth has been recorded have recent records (<5 years old), suggesting that IF the moth is looked for in appropriate habitat, it will be found.  This also suggests that the moth may be more secure than previously thought, as it has been thought that the moth was in decline across much of its range (Schweitzer, et al., 2011). I personally have found it in Emanuel, Long, and Taylor Cos. in the last two years. Surveys are currently being conducted as well at Alligator Creek WMA in Wheeler County and Canoochee WMA in Bulloch County, and both locations have obvious Gopher Tortoise populations, so it may be expected that we will find the moth in these two counties as well.

Range

Idia gopheri is presumably found across much of the range of the Gopher Tortoise. The moth is most abundant in Florida (Stillwaugh, 2006), but it is known from at least one location in Mississippi (Schweitzer, et al., 2011), and now several locations in Georgia. There is no doubt that, once detailed surveys are done in Alabama that the moth will be found there as well.

In Georgia, the original records were from the Ohoopee Dune system (including some of the Natural Areas) in Emanuel and Tattnall Counties. More recent surveys have expanded the numbers of counties where there are records, including not only Long County in SE Georgia (northern reaches of the Townsend WMA), but also over into west central Georgia (locations in Marion County and the western section of the Fall Line Sandhills WMA, Taylor Co.).  Ongoing new surveys at Canoochee WMA in Bulloch Co. and at Alligator Creek WMA in Wheeler Co., where Gopher Tortoises occur, may add additional locations for this species.

Threats

This is a moth that is largely tied to the Gopher Tortoise, which is a protected species in Georgia. So the moth is, in some respects, protected as well. However, during development of sandy habitats where the Gopher Tortoises are found, the Tortoises are required to be relocated, but the commensals (including Idia gopheri) are not relocated with them. Still, the sandy habitats where the tortoises/moths occur are not typically high priority for industrial development and, as such, both are protected to some extent by where they are found. Residential development is typically more of a problem in these sandy habitats. As long as occasional prescribed or natural burning keeps the Gopher Tortoise habitats open for the Tortoises (the habitat is typically quite open as is, and intense burns are not even possible in this habitat), this moth should be in decent shape. However, management for other sand habitat specialist moths (Fernaldella georgiana, Catocala grisatra) and other insects should be considered in overall management plans.

Georgia Conservation Status

There are colonies of this moth in at least seven counties in Georgia currently, and likely to be more.  As such, this moth should be S2S3 for the state of Georgia.

Conservation Management Recommendations

Occasional burning to keep the Gopher Tortoise habitats open would be appropriate. Purchasing and protection of additional lands with large Gopher Tortoise populations would also appropriate when possible.

As is the case with other sandy habitat species, this species may be under threat from "restoration" projects, where these habitats are targeted to "restore" Longleaf Pine habitats. This practice is popular, but can actually destroy microhabitats that favor the Gopher Tortoises and their commensals. As such, existence of the tortoises AND the moths, as well as other sandy specialist moths and insects need to be taken into account before "restoration" projects are undertaken.

I undestand that, IF Gopher Tortoises are threatened by development, that they must be moved prior to the development. This may save the individual tortoises, but does NOT take into account the commensals associated with them, including this moth.

References

Schweitzer, D. F., M. C. Minno, and D. L. Wagner. 2011. Rare, declining and poorly known butterfly and moths (Lepidoptera) of forests and woodlands in the eastern United States, pages 303-304. Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team.

Stillwaugh, D. 2006. Of moths and tortoises. The Tortoise Burrow 26(3): 2-4.

Young, F. N. and C. C. Goff. 1939. An annotated list of the arthropods found in the burrows of the Florida gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus (Dandin). Florida Entomologist 22: 53-62.

Authors of Account

James K. Adams, Professor of Biology, Dalton State College, Dalton, GA

Date Compiled or Updated

June 29, 2020

The one possible confusing similar species for Idia gopheri in Georgia: Idia lubricalis, Rocky Face Ridgeline, Pinhoti Trail, Dug Gap Battle Road, Just WSW of Dalton, Whitfield Co., GA, June 19-20, 2020. See discussion under "Similar Species". Photo by James K. Adams, all rights reserved.