Academic journal article Science and Children

Physicists Solve Longstanding Puzzle of How Moths Find Distant Mates

Academic journal article Science and Children

Physicists Solve Longstanding Puzzle of How Moths Find Distant Mates

Article excerpt

The way in which male moths locate females flying hundreds of meters away has long been a mystery to scientists.

Researchers know the moths use pheromones to locate their mates. Yet when these chemical odors are widely dispersed in a windy, turbulent atmosphere, the insects still manage to fly in the right direction over hundreds of meters with only random puffs of their mates' pheromones spaced tens of seconds apart to guide them.

Massimo Vergassola and two other physicists, however, now appear to have come up with a mathematical explanation for the moths' remarkable ability. The three physicists developed a statistical approach to trace the evolution of trajectories of fluid parcels in a turbulent airflow, which then allowed them to come up with a generalized solution to determine the signal that animals sense while searching for food, mates, and other things necessary for survival.

"This a general problem--how animals, including ourselves, search for things," says Vergassola, the senior author of the paper. "A similar problem exists for flies that can detect garbage cans far away or for dogs that are guided by scents, although the difference is that their smells are generally on the ground, so their signals are much more stable. Insects face the most difficult problem as they rely on olfaction and detecting the volatile signals dispersed in the wind. …

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