BELLINGHAM - Lars Crabo's hunt for a moth once took him to sandy soil near Vale, Ore., in the mid-1990s.
It was hot, dry, dusty and desolate that night. Crabo wore shorts, sandals or maybe it was beat-up boat shoes, and a head lamp. There were black widow spiders crawling all over the ground, and scorpions. His friend and fellow moth searcher jumped back in alarm as a snake slithered across his line of sight.
And when they discovered what turned out to be a new moth, Crabo and Jim Troubridge named it satanella - think "little devil."
"That was as close to hell as we'd ever been," said Crabo, a Bellingham radiologist, with a grin.
Budding naturalists can see what that moth species, full name Sympistis satanella, looks like by going online to Pacific Northwest Moths (pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu).
The new website grew from a three-year collaboration among scientists, private collectors and institutions in the region.
The comprehensive database features more than 1,200 species of the larger moths found in Washington state, Idaho, Oregon, western Montana and the southern third of British Columbia. They include invasive species.
The website has fact sheets, distribution maps and beautiful, high-resolution color photos that can be zoomed in to show the tiniest of details, such as wing scales that can be smaller than 1/100th of an inch.
It can help people identify moths, and it works on mobile devices.
The project was overseen by Merrill Peterson, a biology professor at Western Washington University, with about $497,000 from federal stimulus dollars through the National Science Foundation.
(Western received nearly $147,000 of that grant, and the remainder went to project partner Washington State University.)
At least 95 percent of the moths pictured on the website came from Crabo's collection, according to Peterson.
"He has a magnificent moth collection," Peterson said. "His collection is amazing to look at."
Crabo calls himself an amateur, but he has been described as a renowned moth expert who has tens of thousands of moths neatly pinned and displayed in drawers in his Bellingham home. Within each drawer is a box segmented into unit trays, each bearing one species.
In some unit trays, there is just one moth. In others, many are neatly lined in rows and columns, resembling airplanes ready for takeoff or, sometimes, jeweled creatures - in shades of orange, dusty rose, and green with speckled and striped wing patterns - frozen in flight.
"They're beautiful," Crabo said of moths. "Some of them are beautiful because they're gaudy. And some of them are beautiful because they're subtle."
That sense of wonder is what Pacific Northwest Moths' collaborators hope to share. The site also serves Peterson's goal of generating public interest, especially among the young.
"There basically hasn't been recruitment of young people," Peterson said. "One of my fears is we've got all these old experts who have an amazing amount of knowledge about the fauna of our region and the knowledge that they have isn't being passed on as well as it could be."
With that in mind, Peterson said, why not create a website, the medium that works with how people search for information today.
He said the website is important in a number of ways, including the fact that it provides information in one place for budding naturalists, who otherwise have to search far and wide in what can be a daunting task.
"People are often curious about the natural world. Moths are an incredibly diverse component of the natural world," Peterson said. "They're so diverse that up until the creation of this website it's been impossible for a novice to enter into the world of diversity without feeling lost. There's too many species, it boggles the mind."
The website also answers some basic questions, such as:
Are all moths night owls? No, there are some that are active during the day.
What's the difference between moths and butterflies? Butterflies are active only during the day and tend to be more brightly colored. The easiest way to tell between the two is the antennae. Butterflies have thin antennae with a small knob at the end, while the antennae of moths are varied in appearance, often hair-like (with no knob) or feathery.
What roles do moths play? Moths and their larvae are food for other insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish and mammals.
And for those who still need convincing, Peterson offers additional reasons why moths are interesting and what they bring in terms of biodiversity close to home.
More than 10,000 species of moths are found in North America alone.
"Mostly, it's because they're so darn cool," Peterson said. "It's eye-popping when you start to look at how many different moths there are. Moths are an excellent reminder that you actually don't have to go that far to be blown away by diversity."
Pacific Northwest Moths is online at pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu. The database, which includes photos, features more than 1,200 species of moths.
The website is the product of a three-year regional collaboration that included Western Washington University's Merrill Peterson, a professor of biology; Bellingham radiologist and moth expert Lars Crabo; Richard Zack at Washington State University's M.T. James Entomological Collection; Jon Shepard and Paul Hammond, with the Oregon State Arthropod Collection at Oregon State University; and scientists at the University of Idaho, Canadian National Collection, Oregon Department of Agriculture, and Washington Department of Agriculture.
Organizers also drew on private collections and work from WWU students.
Learn more about moths, and National Moth Week (which runs through Sunday, July 29), online at nationalmothweek.org.
Reach KIE RELYEA at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2234.