Washington, August 15 (ANI): Male moths can detect females within 300 feet using their antenna, according to a new study.
A female moth sitting on a goal post could attract a male moth on the other end of a football field. And even if the female switched her scent over time, the male could still find her because of a mutation to a single gene in his antenna.
A team of researchers led by Montana State University entomologist Kevin Wanner identified that gene after seeing how it adapted to even the slightest change in the chemicals female moths emit to attract males.
Understanding the genetics behind moth communication could lead to natural ways to control pests, said Wanner, who has dual assignments in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and MSU Extension.
Scientists could someday design new scents that would make it impossible for male moths to find females of the same species. The European corn borer alone is one of the most damaging insect pests of corn throughout the United States and Canada. The losses it causes and the cost to control it is estimated at more than 1 billion dollars each year.
In the meantime, the discovery that involved hundreds of moths, an MSU-University of Montana collaboration, and a vital piece of equipment adds to the basic understanding of insect genetics, Wanner said. One area of interest focuses on the genetic barriers that keep moths from mating outside their own species.
Scientists have studied communication between male and female moths and butterflies for more than a century. They found the first sex pheromones in moths 50 years ago. But they still know little about the molecular mechanics that make communication so specific to a species, Wanner said. In some cases, different moth species are so much alike that scientists can only tell them apart by their different pheromones.
Pheromones are the blends of chemical odors that females emit to attract males of the same species for mating. If the ratio or chemicals themselves change during the evolution of a new species, the male needs to adapt or he won't be able to find the female. How male moths adapt to pheromone changes in females has been a long-standing question.
Female moths release just nanograms - a billionth of a gram-of pheromone from a gland at the tip of their abdomen, Wanner said.
He added that this amount is far too small for humans to smell, but male moths within 300 feet of the females can detect it with the sensory cells on their antennae.
The scientists explained their findings in the recent online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). (ANI)