Last month a police officer on night patrol at Reedy Creek Park rolled alongside a man walking a dirt path and carrying a long white sheet.
“What’s going on here?” the officer said, an eyebrow arched in suspicion.
“It’s Moth Night,” said the man, and his matter-of-fact reply suggested this might not have been the event’s first occurrence.
Believe it or not – the officer didn’t, at first – it really was Moth Night, and it really does happen quite often.
Once a month volunteers get together to set up spotlights, cast large white sheets and collect specimens for the James F. Matthews Center for Biodiversity Studies.
Housed deep in the woods of the park, the center is named for Matthews, a professor emeritus of biology at UNC Charlotte. It holds much of the Piedmont’s animal and plant history. Like a photo album over the decades, it offers snapshots of what has been and what exists today.
Two rooms – one for herbaceous finds, the other for zoological specimens – catalog thousands of examples of life in the 14 counties that make up the Piedmont of North Carolina.
The oversized, drab olive lockers in the herbarium alone hold more than 42,000 specimens, each pressed into stacks of thick albums.
“There are plants back there from before Lake Norman, so you have all the flora that used to be where Lake Norman is now,” said the center’s curator, Catherine Luckenbaugh. “It’s important historical documentation of the flora of our region.”
Jars of pickled frogs and glass cases with dozens of perfectly intact dragonflies fill the zoological collection, which is kept in a temperature-controlled climate on the side opposite the herbarium.
It holds 200 species of reptiles, at least 50 mammals, several hundred snails and mussels and thousands of fish and insects.
“We keep adding all the time,” said Lenny Lampel, who helps manage the collection and also created Moth Night.
Scientists understand the collection’s significance: To understand the Piedmont’s changing landscape in the future, they must first examine the past.
Luckenbaugh said she wishes someone had begun the collection years earlier.
“We have so many questions, even now, about what we call Piedmont prairies. No one really knows what they were like,” Luckenbaugh said.
“But the more we collect now, the more information that is available for folks in the future to really understand what the landscape was like. And they’ll have a complete picture that we don’t really have the benefit of having.”
The center was given an initial boost when Davidson College and UNC Charlotte decided to pass down their own collections.
The rooms are open to the public by appointment. It’s not uncommon, Luckenbaugh said, to hear the knuckles of someone with a question rapping on the center’s door.
“May I look at your Hexastylis naniflora Blomquist?” an environmental consultant asked earlier in the week, Luckenbaugh said.
Lampel expects the collection to grow considerably. After just a few years, it already holds more than 400 species of moths documented to exist in Mecklenburg County.
“Every time we do a moth night, we end up with one that is a county record (a species not found before in the county),” he said. “There was one from last month we think might be a state record.”