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How Insect Flight Patterns Affect Our Ecosystem

April 4, 2016

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If you’ve ever sat outside on a nice spring night, chances are you’ve witnessed hoards of moths swarming around various light sources. You’ve probably also cleaned them out of old boxes and perhaps scraped a few off your windshield. These little creatures, like many insects, are actually a much bigger part of our world than we might think. How and where moths migrate can directly affect how ecosystems functions.

With a Ph.D. in entomology, Dr. Jason Chapman of Rothamsted Research in Harpendon, United Kingdom, has spent the last 18 years studying the migration systems of moths and other insects to anticipate when pests will arrive and how scientists can develop more environmentally friendly ways to grow crops.

Chapman’s presentation at TLU discussed his research, “Chasing The High Fliers: Radar Studies of Migration in Moths,” sharing examples of his work in England and his current research in Seguin. According to Chapman, it’s essential to study insect migration or else we can’t fully understand our ecosystems and the central role it plays in animal flight behavior.

In the U.K., his work focuses on the Silver Y Moth, a north-south migrant with patterns similar to songbirds. Since moths breed continuously, their populations can grow to enormous numbers (1 trillion of these moths fly over the U.K. alone) creating a huge impact on crops. Chapman’s research found that the Silver Y Moths have actually evolved to use the wind’s speed and direction to their advantage.

Using his Vertical Looking Radar (VLR)  Chapman began sending beams upward between 150 to 1200 meters. Measuring factors like speed, direction, mass, shape, and body alignment, the VLR identifies anything that flies through it. Chapman took this data and separated all of the insects or objects into categories. This allowed him to find that the moths were selecting the safest, most efficient ways to travel long distances in the shortest amounts of time. By attaching a net to a large helium balloon to catch specimens, Chapman confirmed that the high radar data he saw was indeed coming from the Silver Y Moth. Essentially, they were concentrating at particular altitudes and intentionally selected the fastest sections of wind.

Now, Chapman has brought his VLR and knowledge to Seguin where he’s working on a Radar Entomology Project to better understand local insect patterns (Fall armyworm) and species that move up from Mexico. While in Seguin, Chapman has also encountered interesting local factors including the weather patterns of South Texas, as well as how the very large number of bats influences the insect populations. The data gathered will once again allow researchers to better predict when these insects will migrate and help farmers anticipate any issues.