Moths adapt to cope with win­ter

At­ten­bor­ough Na­ture Re­serve man­ager TIM SEX­TON fo­cuses on its win­ter in­sect life

Nottingham Post - - WILD LIFE -

AS the nights draw in and the weather turns cold, most en­to­mol­o­gists (peo­ple who study in­sects) who come to At­ten­bor­ough tend to swap their bug nets for binoc­u­lars. While there cer­tainly are more birds to be seen than bee­tles at this time of year, you’ll be amazed at the diver­sity of dif­fer­ent in­sects re­main ac­tive through the win­ter - and the lengths they go to sur­vive in even the harsh­est of tem­per­a­tures.

Few peo­ple re­alise that in the win­ter, when most other in­sects are ly­ing dor­mant, there are a num­ber of species of moth that are seem­ingly un­af­fected by the cold – and in fact, are of­ten only ac­tive dur­ing this time.

One such moth was recorded for the first this Au­tumn when a num­ber ap­peared on the ex­te­rior walls of the Na­ture Cen­tre on Wed­nes­day evening, at­tracted to the se­cu­rity lights around the build­ing. The win­ter moth (pic­tured) is ‘on the wing’ be­tween Oc­to­ber and Fe­bru­ary.

The most ob­vi­ous adap­ta­tion is that like many other win­ter fly­ing moth species, the fe­males of the win­ter moth are very dif­fer­ent from the males in their ap­pear­ance. They are much smaller and are to­tally flight­less with only tiny dark-striped ves­ti­gial wings.

The fe­male spends the day at the base of trees, climb­ing up at dusk to at­tract a mate and lay eggs – which are placed on the bark and leaf buds. As the pro­duc­tion of eggs uses a lot of en­ergy, at a time of year when it is dif­fi­cult to re­place, the fe­males win­ter moths have done away with the abil­ity to fly.

The sec­ond adap­ta­tion is not so ob­vi­ous. The win­ter moth has spe­cial anti-freeze pro­teins present in their equiv­a­lent of blood. While their ex­act role is not yet fully un­der­stood by science, the pro­teins have an un­usual re­peat­ing struc­ture that al­lows them to bind to ice crys­tals and lower the min­i­mum tem­per­a­ture at which the crys­tals can grow, thus stop­ping them from ex­pand­ing and break­ing the moth’s cell mem­branes.

De­spite moths be­ing ex­ten­sively stud­ied on the Re­serve for over 30 years, the win­ter moth, like many of its cousins, has only re­cently been added to the site’s moth list – this is mostly due to the lack of record­ing in the colder months of the year.

As a re­sult of con­stant ef­fort moth record­ing, some 50 new win­ter fly­ing species have been recorded at At­ten­bor­ough in the last five years.

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