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5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
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An animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in three New York courts this week in an...
Researchers have been hot on the trail of the elusive Denisovans, a type of ancient human known only by their DNA and...
Thousands of scientists in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) are about to lose their jobs as a result of the...
Dyslexia, a learning disability that hinders reading, hasn't been associated with deficits in vision, hearing, or...
Exotic, elusive, and dangerous, snakes have fascinated humankind for millennia. They can be hard to find, yet their...
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the first two snake genomes, which represent two evolutionary extremes. The...
Snake venoms are remarkably complex mixtures that can stun or kill prey within minutes. But more and more researchers...
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
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Getting to the Roots of Flying Famine
26 October 1998 7:00 pm
Huge swarms of desert locusts have devastated crops in Africa, Asia, and Europe since biblical times, but no mortals have been able to predict when they will strike. Now a new computer model, reported in today's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appears to mimic how solitary locusts gang up and begin to swarm. The new findings could help pest control officials locate nascent locust swarms before they get off the ground.
Desert locusts live most years as ordinary grasshoppers, munching scattered stands of vegetation and keeping to themselves. But when too many hatch in a particular region, the solitary brown insects morph into a mob of gregarious, black-and-yellow bugs that consume everything in sight--and then cross continents en masse in search of more food. Because locusts become more sociable when they casually bump each other while eating, scientists have tried to pinpoint emerging swarms by using satellite maps of vegetation. But that attempt has largely failed.
To better understand what turns lonely locusts into a marauding scourge, integrative biologist Stephen Simpson and his colleagues at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, created a computer model that probed how the pattern of vegetation influenced the social life of 20 locusts. They found that the solitary insects grew more gregarious as the vegetation became more patchy and, thus, forced them into closer quarters.
To test the predictions of the computer model, the Oxford team let 20 real locusts roam for 8 hours in a small square arena dotted with tiny pots of wheat. Patches of food caused the real locusts to become more sociable, just as the model predicted. "If the vegetation is more clumped ... they'll end up on the same food plant, which means they'll contact each other and cause each other to change" into social insects, Simpson says. The Oxford team has preliminary results from field experiments in Morocco that show that locusts in the desert behave like those in the lab.
The results may apply to more than locusts, says population biologist Alan Hastings of University of California, Davis. "It throws into question some [modeling] approaches that [compile an] average over small spatial scales," he says. Recognizing areas with patchy vegetation could also help pest control agencies to identify where locust swarms might originate.