- Associated Press - Saturday, June 8, 2019

WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) - A caterpillar and moth native to Southeast Asia have been discovered eating indigenous plants on Maui that provide important habitat for native species and protect the island’s watershed, Hawaii officials said. It’s the first documented sighting of the caterpillar in the U.S.

A biologist looking for native snails in October noticed signs of unfamiliar caterpillars feeding on mamaki leaves in Olowalu. The caterpillar and moth turned out to be the Ramie moth, The Maui News reported .

Reports of the bug then filtered in from across the island from Waiehu to Makawao, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said.

The Ramie moth has been laying its eggs on several plants in the nettles family on Maui, such as mamaki and akolea. These plants are food sources for the Kamehameha caterpillar and are valued by Native Hawaiians for their fiber and medicinal qualities.

“Mamaki and other plants in that family provide habitat for animals and other plants. They are an important species in wet understories, they protect watersheds,” said Keahi Bustamente, a Maui-based Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit invertebrate biologist working with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Many of the 14 species in the mamaki family are endemic to Hawaii and are found only there; some species are critically endangered, he said.

Scientists don’t know how the Ramie moth arrived on Maui. Bustamante said it’s likely humans introduced it. The caterpillars may have been transported as eggs on leaves of an imported plant, he said.

Ramie caterpillars are black and sometimes yellow, with bright orange-red spots and white hairs.

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