This moth may outsmart smog by learning to like pollution-altered aromas

Pollution can play havoc with pollinators’ favorite flower smells. But one kind of moth can learn how to take to an unfamiliar new scent like, well, a moth to a flame.

Floral aromas help pollinators locate their favorite plants. Scientists have established that air pollutants scramble those fragrances, throwing off the tracking abilities of such beneficial insects as honeybees (SN: 4/24/08). But new lab experiments demonstrate that one pollinator, the tobacco hawkmoth (Manduca sexta), can quickly learn that a pollution-altered scent comes from the jasmine tobacco flower (Nicotiana alata) that the insect likes.

That ability may imply that the moth can find food and pollinate plants, including crucial crops, despite some air pollution, researchers report September 2 in the Journal of Chemical Ecology. Scientists already knew that some pollinators can learn new smells, but this is the first study to demonstrate an insect overcoming pollution’s effects on odors.

Chemical ecologist Markus Knaden and colleagues focused on one pollutant — ozone, the main ingredient in smog. Ozone reacts with flower aroma molecules, changing their chemical structure and therefore their fragrance.

In Knaden’s lab at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, his team blew an ozone-altered N. alata scent from a tiny tube into a refrigerator-sized plexiglass tunnel, with a moth awaiting at the far end of the tunnel. Usually, when the moth smells the unaltered floral fragrance, it flies upwind and uses its long, skinny mouthparts to probe the tube the way that it would a blossom.

The researchers expected that the modified scent might throw the moth off a little. But the insect wasn’t attracted at all to a flower aroma exposed to levels of ozone that are typical on some hot, sunny days.

In addition to scent, tobacco hawkmoths track flowers visually, so Knaden’s team used that trait, along with a sweet snack, to train the moth to be attracted to a pollution-altered scent. The researchers wrapped a brightly-colored artificial flower around the tube to lure the moth back across the tunnel, despite the unfamiliar aroma. And the team added sugar water to the artificial flower. After a moth was given four minutes to taste the sweet stuff, it was attracted to the new smell when sent into the tunnel 15 minutes later, even when neither the sugar water nor the visual cue of the artificial flower was present. 

In the lab, researchers showed that tobacco hawkmoths can learn to drink from a fake flower whose scent has been scrambled by pollution. To train the moths to accept the altered scent, a visual cue — dressing up a tube emitting a fouled bouquet as an artificial flower — attracts the moth, and a sugar-water reward teaches the insect that it’s worth a return trip.

Still, in an ozone-polluted environment in the wild, tobacco hawkmoths would have to be close enough to a tobacco flower to see it to learn its altered scent, and Knaden isn’t sure how often that will occur. The moths are difficult to observe in nature because they feed at twilight and are fast flyers.

“This study is a clarion call to other scientists” to examine whether and how different pollinators might also adapt to human-driven changes to their environment, says chemical ecologist Shannon Olsson of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore, India, who wasn’t involved with the work.

Although the results suggest that some adaptation by insects to pollution is possible, Knaden is cautious about being too optimistic. “I don’t want the take-home message to be that pollution is not a problem,” he says. “Pollution is a problem.”

This study focused on only one moth species, but Knaden’s team is now working on planning experiments with other pollinators that are easier to follow than tobacco hawkmoths. While he suspects honeybees might also be as adaptable as the moth was, that won’t be true of every pollinator. “The situation can become very bad for insects that are not as clever or cannot see that well.”