moth

After almost seven years of research, UF scientists are beginning to understand Gainesville’s nocturnal residents a little better. 

The Kawahara Lab at the Florida Museum of Natural History published a paper Oct. 21 contradicting previous findings about the hearing organs of moths. 

Scientists previously believed moths developed hearing organs to sense echolocation from their primary predators: bats. The Kawahara Lab found moths actually developed hearing organs millions of years before bats existed.

The study has far-reaching implications in the Gainesville community where the UF Bat Houses are a popular attraction for students and tourists, said Akito Kawahara, the  study’s leader and a UF associate professor of entomology and museum curator. 

Noise pollution created by humans disorients moths, a species unaccustomed to car horns or factories, and makes it difficult for them to search for mating partners at night. This leaves moths vulnerable to other predators, which results in less food for bats, Kawahara said.

Scientists still don’t know why moths developed hearing organs, but some predict it was to hear predators other than bats, Kawahara said.

“The only way you’d know is if you went back 100 million years ago and looked at these bugs,” he said. ”So that’s our best hypothesis at this point.”

The research study was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, China National GeneBank, the BGI group and the German Research Foundation. The study took place at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity within the Florida Museum. The study began in 2013 and was authored by 20 international scientists.

David Plotkin, 30, is a doctoral student in the UF Department of Entomology and Nematology and works in the Kawahara Lab. Due to the fragility of insects, moth fossils required expert identification. A fossil that the team initially thought was a moth actually turned out to be a leaf. 

The study could not have been completed without the help of a large team, Plotkin said. 

“It definitely is more than a one-person job, and that’s why there are over a dozen people on this paper,” Plotkin said.