UVM drone team returns to document moth damage

Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 4:38 PM EDT
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MONKTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Spongy moth caterpillars, formally known as gypsy caterpillars, returned with a vengeance this year, leaving cars and streets covered and stripping trees bare. Researchers with the University of Vermont are trying to document just how much damage they caused this time around.

Under sunny skies, the UVM Spatial Analysis Team set up their drone to take flight. It’s their second year in the Little Hogback Community Forest in Monkton to assess spongy moth defoliation.

“Last year we heard about the moths causing a lot of defoliation in the trees and thought it would be a really interesting opportunity for us to collect some data,” said Maddy Zimmerman, who last year flew the drone in this area because it’s practically in the backyard of one of their team members. They’re back for that reason this year, but also to collect data to compare across multiple years.

They do it through multispectral data and LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method that uses a laser to measure ranges, It helps them evaluate the tree canopy and create indices to help monitor vegetation health.

“As you can kind of imagine, when the leaves are more defoliated, it’s a bit easier for us to collect data, which is good for us, bad for the ecosystem,” Zimmerman explained.

The job of this team is to simply collect the data. Then, they’ll put it on a server and create 3D models with it, which could help foresters study the invasive pest.

UVM Spatial Analysis Team at work.
UVM Spatial Analysis Team at work.(WCAX)

From the recent flights, Zimmerman says there was no firm data quite yet but that the forest this year seems slightly less devastated. “Last year when we were here at this time -- actually on the same day last year -- there were moths everywhere. Moths in my hair, bumping into my legs, it was kind of creepy. So, in that aspect, that seems a little bit better to me,” she said.

That sentiment is echoed by neighbor Ian Schulze, who was helping the team identify clearings to fly the drone Thursday. Last year, he says the forest was nearly bare. “As I was talking my dogs down the road I could look up into the forest and there was absolutely no green. It was as if it was winter, but it was also 75 degrees and sunny,” he said.

Though it’s greener in 2022 it’s his house that got hit harder this year than last. “It sounded like it was sort of drizzling outside, all the time. Because their frass -- is what they call it -- comes down through the leaves and it just sounds like it’s drizzling,” Schulze said.

He’s hoping the data collected by the team can help foresters determine the consequences of deforestation and the way that the caterpillars move places, among other discoveries. The community’s desire for more information is something Zimmerman says they didn’t anticipate. “I think that it’s sparked a lot of interest and wasn’t necessarily something that I expected on the front end when we were like, ‘Oh, this would be interesting data to collect.’ We didn’t think it would evolve into this bigger picture.”

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