Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

How A Brain Chemical Changes Locusts From Harmless Grasshoppers To Swarming Pests

Date:
February 1, 2009
Source:
University of Cambridge
Summary:
Scientists have uncovered the underlying biological reason why locusts form migrating swarms. Their findings, reported in Science, could be used in the future to prevent the plagues which devastate crops (notably in developing countries), affecting the livelihood of one in ten people across the globe.

This is a portrait shot of an adult solitarious phase locust.
Credit: Image copyright Tom Fayle

Scientists have uncovered the underlying biological reason why locusts form migrating swarms. Their findings, reported in today's edition of Science, could be used in the future to prevent the plagues which devastate crops (notably in developing countries), affecting the livelihood of one in ten people across the globe.

A collaboration between a team of scientists in Cambridge and Oxford, UK and Sydney, Australia has identified an increase in the chemical serotonin in specific parts of the insects' nervous system as initiating the key changes in behaviour that cause them to swarm.

Desert Locusts are one of the most devastating insect pests, affecting 20% of the world's land surface. Vast swarms containing billions of locusts stretching over many square kilometres periodically devastated parts of the USA at the time of the settlement of the West, and continue to inflict severe economic hardship on parts of Africa and China. In November 2008 swarms six kilometres (3.7 miles) long plagued Australia.

Locusts belong to the grasshopper family but unlike their harmless relatives they have the unusual ability to live in either a solitary or a gregarious state, with the genetic instructions for both packaged within a single genome.

Locusts originate from barren regions that see only occasional transient rainfalls. While unforgiving conditions prevail, locusts eke out a living as solitary individuals with a strong aversion to mingling with other locusts. When the rains come, the amount and quality of vegetation expands and the locusts can breed in large numbers.

In deserts, however, the rains are not sustained and food soon becomes more and more sparse. Thus large numbers of locusts are funnelled into dwindling patches of remaining vegetation where they are forced into close contact with each other. This crowding triggers a dramatic and rapid change in the locusts' behaviour: they become very mobile and they actively seek the company of other locusts. This new behaviour keeps the crowd together while the insects acquire distinctly different colours and large muscles that equip them for prolonged flights in swarms.

As Steve Rogers from Cambridge University emphasises: "The gregarious phase is a strategy born of desperation and driven by hunger, and swarming is a response to find pastures new".

Solitary and gregarious locusts are so different in looks and behaviour that they were thought to be separate species until 1921. But the realisation that crowding triggers swarming posed a new problem: how can the mere presence of other locusts have such a dramatic effect? The new research, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Royal Society, solved this 90 year old question by identifying an increase in the chemical serotonin in specific parts of the locust's nervous system as launching the fundamental changes in behaviour that lead to the gregarious phase.

In the laboratory, solitary locusts can be turned into gregarious ones in just two hours simply by tickling their hind legs to simulate the jostling that locusts experience in a crowd. This period coincides with a threefold but transient (less than 24 hours) increase in the amount of serotonin in the thoracic region of the nervous system. Experiments were then designed to show that serotonin is indeed the causal link between the experience of being in a crowd and the change in behaviour.

First, locusts were injected with specific chemicals that block the action of serotonin on its receptors: when these locusts were exposed to the same gregarizing stimuli, they did not become gregarious. Second, chemicals that block the production of serotonin had the same effect. Third, when injected with serotonin or chemicals that mimic serotonin, locusts turned gregarious even in the absence of other locusts. Finally, chemicals that increased the natural synthesis of serotonin enhanced gregarization when locusts were exposed to the tickling stimuli. This indicates that it is the synthesis of serotonin that is driven by these specific stimuli and in turn changes the behaviour.

Dr Michael Anstey, an author of the paper from the University of Oxford, said: "Up until now, whilst we knew the stimuli that cause locusts' amazing 'Jekyll and Hyde'-style transformation, nobody had been able to identify the changes in the nervous system that turn antisocial locusts into monstrous swarms. The question of how locusts transform their behaviour in this way has puzzled scientists for almost 90 years, now we finally have the evidence to provide an answer."

Dr Swidbert Ott, from Cambridge University, one of the co-authors of the article, said: "Serotonin profoundly influences how we humans behave and interact, so to find that the same chemical in the brain is what causes a normally shy antisocial insect to gang up in huge groups is amazing."

Professor Malcolm Burrows, also from Cambridge University: "We hope that this greater understanding of the mechanisms causing such a big change in behaviour will help in the control of this pest, and more broadly help in understanding the widespread changes in behavioural traits of animals."

Professor Steve Simpson of Oxford and Sydney Universities said: "No other biological system is understood from nerve cells to populations in such detail or to such effect: locusts offer an exemplar of the how to span molecules to ecosystems – one of the greatest challenges in modern science."

Locust Facts:

  • Locusts are grasshoppers that swarm. Of the 8,000 known species of grasshoppers throughout the world only about 12 are swarm-forming locusts.
  • An adult Desert Locust is 2-2.5 inches long and weighs 0.05-0.07 oz.
  • A Desert Locust adult can consume roughly its own weight in fresh food per day.
  • They are prodigious fliers, covering 60 miles in 5-8 hours.
  • The two phases are so different in appearance and behavior that they were thought to be separate species until 1921.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Cambridge. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Michael L. Anstey et al. Serotonin Mediates Behavioral Gregarization Underlying Swarm Formation in Desert Locusts. Science, 30 January 2009

Cite This Page:

University of Cambridge. "How A Brain Chemical Changes Locusts From Harmless Grasshoppers To Swarming Pests." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 February 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090129140845.htm>.
University of Cambridge. (2009, February 1). How A Brain Chemical Changes Locusts From Harmless Grasshoppers To Swarming Pests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 27, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090129140845.htm
University of Cambridge. "How A Brain Chemical Changes Locusts From Harmless Grasshoppers To Swarming Pests." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090129140845.htm (accessed August 27, 2014).

Share This




More Plants & Animals News

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: Firefighters Rescue Puppy Stuck in Tire

Raw: Firefighters Rescue Puppy Stuck in Tire

AP (Aug. 26, 2014) It took Houston firefighters more than an hour to free a puppy who got its head stuck in a tire. (Aug. 26) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Have You Ever Been 'Sleep Drunk?' 1 in 7 Has

Have You Ever Been 'Sleep Drunk?' 1 in 7 Has

Newsy (Aug. 26, 2014) A study published in the journal "Neurology" interviewed more than 19,000 people and found 15 percent suffer from being "sleep drunk." Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Great White Shark Spotted Off Massachusetts Coast

Great White Shark Spotted Off Massachusetts Coast

Reuters - US Online Video (Aug. 26, 2014) A great white shark is spotted off the shore at Duxbury beach in Massachusetts forcing beach goers out of the water. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Elk Wanders Into German Office Building

Raw: Elk Wanders Into German Office Building

AP (Aug. 25, 2014) A young bull elk wandered inside the office building of a company in Dresden, Germany on Monday. The elk became trapped between a wall and glass windows while rescue workers tried to rescue him safely. (Aug. 25) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

    Environment News

    Technology News



    Save/Print:
    Share:

    Free Subscriptions


    Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

    Get Social & Mobile


    Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

    Have Feedback?


    Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
    Mobile: iPhone Android Web
    Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
    Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
    Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins