Researchers from the University of Melbourne, Beijing Forestry University, and the University of California Davis report that an insect's ability to find food and a mate is reduced when their antennae are contaminated by particulate matter from industry, transport, bushfires, and other sources of air pollution.
University of Melbourne researcher Professor Mark Elgar, who co-authored the paper published today in Nature Communications, said the study was alerting humans to a potentially significant risk to insect populations.
"While we know that particulate matter exposure can affect the health of organisms, including insects, our research shows that it also reduces insects' crucial ability to detect odours for finding food and mates," Professor Elgar said.
"This could result in declining populations, including after bushfires and in habitats far from the pollution source.
"As well as being fascinating creatures, many insects play a critical role in pollinating plants -- including almost all the crops we rely on for food -- and breaking down decaying material and recycling nutrients."
The research team conducted several related experiments:
In addition, continuing research in bushfire-affected areas in rural Victoria has shown that the antennae of diverse insects, including bees, wasps, moths, and species of flies, are contaminated by smoke particles, even at considerable distances from the fire front.
Insect antennae have olfactory receptors that detect odour molecules emanating from a food source, a potential mate, or a good place to lay eggs. If an insect's antennae are covered in particulate matter, a physical barrier is created that prevents contact between the smell receptors and air-borne odour molecules.
"When their antennae become clogged with pollution particles, insects struggle to smell food, a mate, or a place to lay their eggs, and it follows that their populations will decline," Professor Elgar said.
"About 40 per cent of Earth's landmass is exposed to particle air pollution concentrations above the World Health Organisation's recommended annual average.
"Surprisingly, this includes many remote and comparatively pristine habitats and areas of ecological significance -- because particulate material can be carried thousands of kilometres by air currents," Professor Elgar said.
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