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City Smells Confound Flower-Seeking Moths

July 15, 2014

Car exhaust and other urban fumes can disrupt moths’ ability to make their way to flowers, a new study reports.

“The flowers occur in patches that can be kilometers away, and these moths are almost at the edge of survival trying to find them,” said Jeff Riffell, a biologist at the University of Washington and the first author of the study, which appears in the journal Science.

The research focuses on the tobacco hornworm moth, which depends on nectar for energy. Nectar from one flower provides enough fuel for just 15 minutes of flying time, so “flying around is really energetically expensive,” Dr. Riffell said.

The scientists sampled flower scents and other odors with a sensitive mass spectrometer, and then used a wind tunnel to determine how different combinations of smells affected a moth’s ability to find flowers. They found that the moths did far better in rural environments than in urban and suburban ones.

But it is not just man-made odors that affect the moths. Scents from neighboring vegetation can be very disruptive as well, Dr. Riffell said.

Now the researchers are interested in studying the effects of urban scents on other major pollinators, like honeybees.

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