Monday, March 4, 2024
Monday, March 4, 2024
HomeSciencePolluting gases found to pose problems for pollinators

Polluting gases found to pose problems for pollinators


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This photo illustration shows a tobacco moth navigating toward a flower amid air polluted by vehicle exhaust emissions. Credit: Floris Van Breugel/University of Washington

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This photo illustration shows a tobacco moth navigating toward a flower amid air polluted by vehicle exhaust emissions. Credit: Floris Van Breugel/University of Washington

A team led by researchers at the University of Washington has discovered a major cause of the decline in nocturnal pollinator activity, and people are largely to blame.

The researchers found that nitrate radicals (NO3) in the air degrade aromatic chemicals released by a common wildflower, dramatically reducing the olfactory cues that nocturnal pollinators rely on to locate the flower. In the environment NO3 It is produced by chemical reactions between other nitrogen oxides, which in turn are released by the combustion of gas and coal from automobiles, power plants and other sources.

The results, published In the diary Science, are the first to show how nocturnal pollution creates a chain of chemical reactions that degrades olfactory signals, leaving flowers undetectable by smell. The researchers also determined that pollution likely has global impacts on pollination.

The team, co-led by Jeff Riffell, a biology professor at the University of Washington, and Joel Thornton, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, studied the pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida). This wildflower grows in arid environments throughout the western U.S. They chose this species because its white flowers give off a scent that attracts a diverse group of pollinators, including night moths, which are one of its most important pollinators.


Video showing a Hyles moth visiting a paper flower that emits a pale evening primrose scent. Credit: Jeremy Chan/University of Washington

At field sites in eastern Washington, researchers collected scent samples from pale evening primrose flowers. Back in the lab, they used chemical analysis techniques to identify the dozens of individual chemicals that make up the wildflower’s scent.

“When you smell a rose, you’re smelling a diverse bouquet made up of different types of chemicals,” Riffell said. “The same goes for almost any flower. Each one has its own aroma made up of a specific chemical recipe.”

Once they identified the individual chemicals that make up the wildflower’s scent, the team used a more advanced technique called mass spectrometry to look at how each scent chemical reacted to NO.3. They discovered that reacting with NO3 almost eliminated certain aromatic chemicals. In particular, the pollutant decimated levels of monoterpene aromatic compounds, which, in separate experiments, the moths found most attractive.


Video showing a Hyles moth visiting a paper flower that emits a pale evening primrose scent. Credit: Jeremy Chan/University of Washington

Moths, which smell through their antennae, have an odor detection ability roughly equivalent to that of dogs and several thousand times more sensitive than the human sense of smell. According to Riffell, research suggests that several species of moths can detect odors from miles away.

Using a wind tunnel and a computer-controlled olfactory stimulus system, the team investigated how well two species of moths, the white-lined sphinx (Hyles lineata) and the tobacco moth (Manduca sexta), could locate and fly toward the smells. When the researchers introduced the normal pale evening primrose scent, both species would easily fly toward the source of the scent.

But when the researchers introduced odor and NO3 At levels typical of a nocturnal urban environment, Manduca’s accuracy was reduced by 50% and Hyles, one of the main nocturnal pollinators of this flower, was unable to locate the source at all.


Image from a field site in eastern Washington showing pale evening primrose flowers. Credit: Jeremy Chan/University of Washington

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Image from a field site in eastern Washington showing pale evening primrose flowers. Credit: Jeremy Chan/University of Washington

Experiments in a natural environment supported these findings. In field experiments, the team showed that moths visited a fake flower that emitted an unaltered scent as often as they visited a real flower. But, if they treated the smell first WITHOUT3moth visitation levels fell by up to 70%.

More information:
JK Chan et al, Olfaction in the Anthropocene: NO3 negatively affects floral scent and nocturnal pollination, Science (2024). DOI: 10.1126/ciencia.adi0858. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.adi0858

Magazine information:
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