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Global warming is causing moths in the tropics to shrink

By Brooks Hays
Global warming is causing moths in the tropics to shrink
In Borneo, moths are escaping to higher elevations on Mount Kinabalu as temperatures rise. Photo by Pixabay

Oct. 11 (UPI) -- As temperatures rise, vulnerable species, including insects like moths, move to higher elevations. While chasing moth species up the mountains of Borneo's national parks, scientists from the University of York realized the insects were also getting smaller.

Researchers turned to earlier surveys to confirm what their eyes were telling them. Moth surveys conducted on Borneo's Mount Kinabalu between 1965 and 2007 revealed significant reduction the length of moth wings. The analysis was detailed this week in the journal Nature Communications.

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Scientists determined that the reduction in wing sizes was explained by the shrinking of moth bodies and the arrival of smaller species at higher and higher elevations.

If the changes in body size continue, entire ecosystems could be affected.

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"Moths becoming smaller could have two significant impacts: It will mean on average an insect having a smaller number of eggs, which will reduce the capacity to reproduce," York biologist Chris Thomas said in a news release. "Secondly, the size of the insect will affect how much they eat and so this will affect their energy value in the food chain. If insect size changes become widespread, it could lead to functional changes across the ecosystem."

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All over the world, species sensitive to temperature change are seeking refuge at higher elevations. In California, for example, pikas are climbing higher toward the peaks of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. In Borne, Mount Kinabalu continues to serve as a sanctuary for plants and animals trying to escape the heat.

"The area we studied on Mount Kinabalu is a protected national park but even in a place like this, we cannot protect insect communities from climate change, which is altering biological communities and ecosystem processes," biologist Jane Hill said.

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