The Moth Hunter: Chris Johns
What I Do:
Chris Johns, a 28-year-old University of Florida biology PhD candidate, hunts Hawaiian mini-moths for science. For the past four years, he’s tracked, observed, and sometimes captured tiny caterpillars (about the size of a human eyelash) from 27 species of the genus Philodoria, a group of insects so specialized that each species only eats (or “mines”) one particular kind of plant. While his research offers up clues about how evolution over time generates new species, the fact that he’s working with such tiny, rare creatures might seem like a ticket to academic obscurity. Instead, it’s won him a prestigious National Geographic Young Explorer grant that not only subsidized further research but is beginning to bring it to the attention of a larger audience, via his still photos and videos that capture the tropical cloud forests in all their vaporous, Avatar-like beauty. “For me, the coolest thing is getting people excited about something that seems literally impossible to care about.”
Johns has the intellectual firepower to deal with the genomics data as he assembles his Philodoria family tree and the requisite adventurous spirit to actually find these tiny creatures in the wild — in some of wettest, densest, and most human-inimical terrain in the world. He developed his love for the land before his graduate advisor turned him on to mini-moths, spending summers in Hawaii working with local conservationists to try to protect the indigenous flora and fauna from an onslaught of invasive species.
A Not-So-Typical Field Report:
“Typically we’re searching in a back valley for a really rare plant, and when we’re finished it will be an eight- to 10-hour hike through foliage so thick we’ll have to walk down a river. We wear these spiked boots that allow us to hop from rock to rock, but after 10 hours, drenched, we’re not hopping very well, we’re basically eating shit, real hands-and-knees stuff. Once, on a longer field trip, we were just outside the rim of an extinct volcano crater in East Maui and we had to get picked up by a helicopter. We were freaking out because it was super-clouded-up and we were out of food and water. Somehow, the pilot was able to reach down and pick us up, but we were flying maybe five feet above the tree canopy, sideways, so the pilot could look straight out his door-less helicopter at the trees as he’s inching down the mountain in a complete white-out. It was dangerous, but really fun.” -Joseph Hooper