Wildfires disrupt moth-flower relationships, increasing risk of extinctions

New research suggests moths are an underappreciated pollinator, and that their pollination services decline in the wake of wildfires. Photo by Jenny/Flickr

July 12 (UPI) — New research in Portugal suggests wildfires disrupt unique relationships between flowers and the specialized moths that pollinate them.

In the wake of wildfire, wildflowers take advantage of an ecosystem cleared of larger plant species. Post-fire wildflower blooms prove a boon to daytime pollinators like bees and butterflies, but new research showed moths, which visit flowers at night, aren’t so lucky.

When scientists surveyed moths from sites across Portugal, they found the insects carry a surprising amount of pollen. In the spring, 95 percent of the moths captured and analyzed were carrying pollen. Scientists also found the pollen of 80 percent of the native flower species being carried by surveyed moths.

However, pollen levels measured on moths caught in areas recently scorched by wildfire were five times lower than moths found in fire-free areas.

“By comparing sites within the burned area to unburned sites nearby, we found that after the fire, flowers were more abundant and represented more species, which was mainly due to increases of flowers in winter and spring,” Callum Macgregor, professor of biology at the University of York, said in a news release. “By contrast, we found that moths were much less abundant and less species rich after the fire, across all seasons.”

The new research, published this week in the journal Functional Ecology, showed the plant-insect communities in areas affected by wildfire were more vulnerable to additional environmental stressors.

“Given the increasing frequency of devastating wildfires we are witnessing in places such as Portugal, the United States and even British moorlands, this is a cause for concern as ecosystems may be becoming less resilient and unable to return to a functioning state,” said Darren Evans, professor of ecology at New Castle University.

Previous studies have shown that bees aren’t the only pollinators negatively affected by insecticides and habitat destruction. Dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and other pollinators are also threatened by the use of pesticides and the decline in plant diversity triggered by the expansion of commercial agriculture.


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