A University of Utah study found that when a virgin male moth gets a whiff of female sex attractant, he’s quicker to start shivering to warm up his flight muscles, and then takes off prematurely when he’s still too cool for powerful flight. So his headlong rush to reach the female first may cost him the race.
The study illustrates the tradeoff between being quick to start flying after a female versus adequately warming up the flight muscles before starting the chase. Until the next study, it remains a mystery which moths actually reach the females: the too-cool, quick-takeoff males or the males who wait until they’re hot enough to take a shot. The latter may end up flying faster and more efficiently and win the race, despite a slow takeoff.
“What happens before flight has not been well studied,” says José Crespo, a University of Utah doctoral student in biology and first author of the new study, published online June 7 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. “To me, the story is you have a behavior – pre-flight warmup – that is switched on by smell.”
“Finding out how odors switch on behavior is critical to the whole picture,” Vickers says. “Furthermore, because insects have this amazing ability to fly, which not many animals have, finding out how flight is turned on by odor is an issue relevant to many insects. … There is a whole constellation of behaviors driven by odor, and this is true of all manner of insects” and even other animals and people.
Vickers and Crespo conducted the study with University of Utah biology Professor Franz Goller. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.
Crespo conducted a second set of experiments that showed cooler temperatures mean less vertical flight power or force.
In these experiments, wax was used to gently attach (not stick) an entomological pin to a moth’s thorax. The other end of the pin was attached to a force sensor, which in turn was wired to various electronics to read the results. A small Styrofoam ball was placed under the moth, which reflexively grabbed onto it with its legs. When Crespo gently pulled away the ball, the moth reflexively tried to fly upward, and the force of that effort was recorded. White and black lights – to which moths are attracted – were above the apparatus to induce the moths to fly with maximum force.
The test was repeated in small temperature increments, showing how warm a moth thorax must be for maximum flight power – about 90 degrees Fahrenheit – and that those in the study took off too cool at about 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
Crespo says moths “are well-known for ‘scramble competition.’ When the female is advertising the pheromone in a field, that pheromone is probably going to be detected by several males, and they’re going to try to compete and get to the female first. You can see how it might be advantageous to take off sooner and try to get to the female first.”“However,” he adds, “if you take off with a lower temperature, we show you have less maximum power in flight, so we think there is a compromise between heating up faster to a lower temperature to arrive at that female first, or waiting a little longer to heat up to a higher temperature and make sure you’re going to make it to the female.”
“It’s costly to fly, to jump into a relationship,” he says.Video and infrared video of a moth warming up may be viewed at:
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