Moth females use scent proximity to attract mates

December 22, 2017 by Coby Schal, North Carolina State University
Female moths can use satellite strategies to attract mates. Credit: Jan van Arkel.

Female moths deemed unworthy or unattractive to male moths can increase their odds of attracting a mate by emitting their sex pheromones - their "come-hither" scents - in close proximity to attractive females, according to new research from North Carolina State University. The findings shed light on so-called satellite strategies used by animals to better their chances at finding mates.

The research also showed that moths with attractive pheromones also benefitted when they were in close proximity to unattractive females, as discerning males chose them more frequently than if they were paired with another .

NC State entomologist Coby Schal and NC State and University of Amsterdam colleagues wanted to learn more about the sexual signaling efforts used by moths, a diverse group of insects with well-identified .

Using both lab wind-tunnel tests and tests on a research farm in Clayton, N.C., the researchers showed that unattractive females - those with a less attractive blend of sex pheromones - had little to no chance of finding a mate when on their own. But when in close proximity to an attractive female, the unattractive females were able to attract a male about 17 percent of the time.

"We suspect this has to do with the fact that males make 'mistakes' as they navigate closer to their target - the attractive female," Schal said.

At the same time, attractive females benefitted from proximity to unattractive females. They mated sooner than attractive females that were searching for males alone or with other attractive .

Schal says the findings broke some new ground in describing previously unseen satellite strategies in animal reproduction.

"These satellite strategies are always described in the scientific literature as male strategies, but here they're being used by female moths," Schal said. "Also, auditory and visual satellite strategies have been described, but our work here shows new findings with an olfactory ."

The research appears in Scientific Reports. Michiel Van Wijk, a post-doctoral researcher in Schal's lab who is now at the University of Amsterdam, is the corresponding author on the paper. Schal, NC State post-doctoral researcher Jeremy Heath, Rik Lievers, a Ph.D. student at the University of Amsterdam and Astrid Groot, an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam, are paper co-authors.

Funding for the work came from the National Science Foundation (awards IOS-1052238 and IOS-1456973) and NC State's Blanton J. Whitmire endowment. The W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Max Planck Society also supported the research.

Explore further: Some moths behave like butterflies to mate

More information: Michiel van Wijk et al, Proximity of signallers can maintain sexual signal variation under stabilizing selection, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-17327-9

Related Stories

Some moths behave like butterflies to mate

April 28, 2016

A new study led by ICTA-UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) researcher Víctor Sarto and colleagues from the Institute of Advanced Chemistry of Catalonia (CSIC-IQAC) has described for the first time in two centuries ...

Darwin was right: Females prefer sex with good listeners

May 26, 2017

Almost 150 years after Charles Darwin first proposed a little-known prediction from his theory of sexual selection, researchers have found that male moths with larger antennae are better at detecting female signals.

Ugly Betty forced to aim for Average Joe

August 26, 2010

Less-pretty female house sparrows tend to lower their aim when selecting a mate. Addressing the lack of studies on condition-dependency of female mate choice, researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary ...

Females compensate for unattractive partners

November 10, 2008

( -- Attractive males promise quality offspring. Most female birds therefore invest a lot of energy in their attempts to breed with attractive partners. Not so the female zebra finch. If they have unattractive ...

Dating drought or purple patch? How males choose mates

October 11, 2011

( -- Males decide how much effort they put into courtship and which females to court based on how many others they have recently encountered and how attractive they were, according to a new study into the mating ...

Recommended for you

An exoplanet with an 11-hour orbit

February 22, 2019

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was launched on April 18 of last year with the primary objective of discovering transiting planets smaller than Neptune around stars bright enough for spectroscopic investigations ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 22, 2017
Activist moths deny that they need help in taking command during mating, pointing out that "that stuff stinks," and that the stubborn inflexibility of male moths is the only reason they even allow their scenting to continue. They predict that, once male moths stop mindlessly responding to obsolete social constructs, female moths will be happily free from having to deal with the stench.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.