A few months ago, a paper was published, confirming that Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) use geomagnetic fields as a navigational tool for their en-masse aestivation flight.
Say what, now?
Long-range migrations are common in the insect world, the most ‘notable’ (as in..the one in which most people take an interest) is that of the monarch butterfly. The migrations occur each year, are purposeful, and serve some ecological function; to reach breeding sites, etc..
In the case of the Bogong moth, millions of moths leave the plains of Australia and fly towards the high country of the Victorian alps to escape the heat and avoid desiccation. They congregate in such large numbers in the mountainous habitat that indigenous peoples would go there to collect the moths as a food source. They are also a preferred staple for mountain pygmy possums. In autumn, the moths return to the plains to lay eggs and the cycle begins again.
Aestivation is just a fancy word for: reduced state of biological activity that occurs in response to hot and dry conditions. It is a sort of ‘summer hibernation’, if you will.
Closer to home, we have Euxoa auxiliaris that exhibits the same pattern (replace pygmy possums with grizzly bears and Australian Alps with Rocky Mountains). The study found that successful orientation relies on a combination of visual cues and magnetic frequencies emitted by the earth, and that when either cue was missing or altered, their flights became uncoordinated and erratic.
So yes, insects have joined the ranks of migratory songbirds, salmon, sea turtles, and probably many other organisms that use geomagnetic signals to navigate.
Now we just someone to develop the superhero series for these Persistent, Amazing, Perceptive, and Strong …mutants?
No, wait – that name’s already taken:
Author note: not sure why the Dreyer et al. is being referred to as the ‘first’ discovery – 1. Baker, R.R. and J.G. Mather, Magnetic compass sense in the large yellow underwing moth, Noctua pronuba L. Animal Behaviour, 1982. 30(2): p. 543-548.
Other note: concerns of pesticide distribution, bioaccumulation and toxicity levels in this type of system have been raised since at least 2006, and warrant further review, IMO