Moths don't need fancy clothes, makeup or a flashy car to attract a mate. Instead, males and females rely upon special scent chemicals called pheromones to find their perfect match. Special adaptations in moth antenna accurately pinpoint suitable mates. Males moths are so sensitive to this chemical that they can discern tiny amounts of female reproduction pheromones across the length of a football field.
Pheromones are sex hormones produced by many insects. Female moths release approximately one nanogram of pheromones from a special gland located on the abdomen, or one-billionth of a gram. The amount is too small for other species to detect, but male moths of the same species can detect it within 300 feet. Males fly towards the source to find a mate. Males also produce pheromones, but these communicate other information.
Until recently, scientists thought that the only purpose of moth pheromones to attract mates. Swedish scientists recently discovered that male moth pheromones communicate detailed information to potential mates: age, reproductive fitness and ancestry. This indicates a more complex courtship model for moths than originally thought.
Male moth antenna are exquisitely sensitive to pheromones released by females of the same species. Studies conducted by the University of Montana indicate that males contain a special gene in the antenna that mutates in response to changes in female pheromones, thus helping them adapt to species-specific changes and ensure that reproduction occurs. Tiny feathery tips along the antenna pick up the slightest hint of pheromone released by females to guide males to their mates.
Scientists study moth reproduction to understand patterns that can lead to potential pesticides. By understanding how pheromones work, they can create chemical-based traps to attract moths that damage crops and clothing. Considering that female moths lay 100 or more eggs per mating, such measures could prevent the spread of harmful moths.
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