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Migrating moths and songbirds travel at similar rates

Posted on 9 March 2010

A new study by a team including scientists from the University of York has found that night-flying moths are able to match their songbird counterparts for travel speed and direction during their annual migrations.

Silver Y moth

But the research published today (09 March) in Proceedings of the Royal Society B says that moths use quite different strategies to do so –  information that adds to our understanding of the lifestyle of such insects, which are important for maintaining biodiversity and food security.

This new international study of moth migration over the UK, and songbird migration over Sweden, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Swedish Research Council, also involved scientists at Rothamsted Research (an institute of BBSRC), and the universities of Lund (Sweden) and Greenwich.

It shows that songbirds (mainly Willow Warblers) and moths (Silver Y moths) have very similar migration speeds – between 30 km and 65 km per hour – and both travel approximately northwards in the spring and southwards in the autumn.

Professor Jane Hill, who led the team in the Department of Biology at York, said: “We know that many animals migrate north in spring to take advantage of summer breeding conditions in northern Europe, before returning south in winter. Given the huge differences in size and flight ability between moths and birds, we were surprised that by taking advantage of suitable winds, moths can travel so quickly.

“Migrant insects are tending to become more abundant in northern Europe, whereas many species of migrant songbirds are undergoing serious declines. These contrasting fortunes might be partly explained by the highly efficient migration strategies employed by insects that we demonstrate in this new study.”

Given the huge differences in size and flight ability between moths and birds, we were surprised that by taking advantage of suitable winds, moths can travel so quickly

Professor Jane Hill

Dr Jason Chapman, of Rothamsted Research, added: “Songbirds such as warblers and thrushes are able to fly unassisted about four times faster than migratory moths, which might appear to be largely at the mercy of the winds. So we had assumed that songbirds would travel much faster over the same distance. It was a great surprise when we found out the degree of overlap between the travel speeds – the mean values are almost identical, which is really remarkable.”

The discovery gives fresh insight into exactly how moths are able to travel in their billions from summer breeding grounds in the UK and elsewhere in northern Europe to their winter quarters in the Mediterranean region and sub-Saharan Africa, thousands of kilometres away. The information is important in the context of declining moth populations and a critical need for pollinating insects to ensure maximum yields of food crops in the face of a potential food security crisis.

The team used specially-designed radars to track the travel speeds and directions of many thousands of individual Silver Y moths and songbirds on their night-time spring and autumn migrations.

The similarity in speed results from contrasting strategies: moths fly only when tailwinds are favourable, so gaining the maximum degree of wind assistance; whereas birds fly on winds from a variety of directions, and consequently receive less assistance. The findings therefore demonstrate that moths and songbirds have evolved very different behavioural solutions to the challenge of moving great distances in a seasonally-beneficial direction in a short period of time.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive, BBSRC said “Insects play a number of very important roles, including the pollination of food crops and other plants. They can also be a problem, causing damage to plants that can lead to yield losses. The more we can understand about insects – how they live, reproduce, find food, become prey for other animals, and more – the better we can tackle some of the problems they both cause and alleviate.”

Notes to editors:

  • The research is published in the current issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B (published 9 March 2011) as “Convergent Patterns of Long-distance Nocturnal Migration in Noctuid Moths and Passerine Birds” by Thomas Alerstam, Jason W. Chapman, Johan Bäckman, Alan D. Smith, Håkan Karlsson, Cecilia Nilsson, Don R. Reynolds, Raymond H. G. Klaassen, and Jane K. Hill. The study was funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Swedish Research Council.
  • The University of York’s Department of Biology is one of the leading centres for biological teaching and research in the UK. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, it was ranked equal first among broad spectrum bioscience departments in the UK for quality that was judged to be world-leading. The Department both teaches degree courses and undertakes research across the whole spectrum of modern Biology, from molecular genetics and biochemistry to ecology.
  • More information about Rothamsted Research, go to www.rothamsted.bbsrc.ac.uk/
  • For more information on the Migration Ecology Group at Lund University, Sweden, go to www.zoo.ekol.lu.se/index_en.htm.
  • BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences and the largest single public funder of agriculture and food-related research. Sponsored by Government, in 2010/11 BBSRC is investing around £470 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. For more information see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

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