FEBRUARY 24 2012 21:25h

Moth infesting Italian vineyards

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ROME, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- A moth infesting vineyards across northern Italy is a previously unknown species of an insect known as a leafminer, scientists say.

First discovered by Italian researchers in 2006, the pest was not identified until examination of the insect's genetic code showed it to be a new species.

The Italian scientists had turned to insect expert Erik van Nieukerken from the Netherlands Center for Biodiversity in Leiden for help.

"We first turned to the [scientific] literature to find out what was already known, which was appallingly little for this group [of moths]," van Nieukerken told the BBC.

A method known as DNA bar coding was employed to look at a section of the pest's genetic code.

"I figured out that this one, despite being quite common in North America, had no name," van Nieukerken said.

The new species, dubbed Antispila oinophylla, had previously been confused with a similar North American species that feeds on Virginia creeper.

However, the genetic studies revealed it to be a different species with a taste for grapevines. In its native range across eastern North America, researchers said, it feeds on several species of wild grapes.

Van Nieukerken said it would have been easy for the insect's cocoons containing larvae to be accidentally transported to Europe with plant material.

"They're very small and exactly the same color as the leaves," he told BBC Nature. "So if you were carrying plants, you would probably not notice them."