Air pollution makes it harder for pollinators to find flowering plants, study finds

A white-striped sphinx moth on an evening primrose flower in Salt Lake County, Utah. These pollinators, also known as hummingbird moths, failed to find flowers in a study involving air pollution. Tony Fratz/Flickr

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A new study suggests that chemicals in air pollution can disrupt plant reproduction because the pollutants mask the scent of flowering plants and make it harder for pollinators to find them.

The studyPublished in the magazine ScienceHow nitrate radicals (NO3), which can be produced by gas-fueled vehicles and burning in coal and gas power plants, and ozone pollutants can degrade the natural chemical scent of flowers.

„When you smell a rose, you're smelling a different flower plant with different types of chemicals,” said study co-author Jeff Riffel, a professor of biology at the University of Washington. explained in a statement. “Same is the case with any flower. Each has its own scent created by a specific chemical process.

The researchers analyzed scent samples of evening primrose flowers and then observed how each of the natural chemicals in the flowers' scents reacted with pollutants in wind tunnels and field tests. The researchers found that nitrate radicals secreted certain chemicals, including monoterpenes, that were particularly attractive to moths.

Although nitrate radicals and ozone pollutants both affected the scent of flowers, nitrate radicals had a greater effect on the monoterpenes that moths rely on to find and pollinate flowers.

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In wind tunnel experiments, researchers found that tobacco hawks were 50% less accurate at detecting flowers, and white-striped sphinx moths were unable to locate flowers at all. In field experiments, moths experienced up to a 70% decline in finding flower sources when nitrate radicals were introduced.

„NO3 actually reduces a flower's 'coverage'—how far its scent travels before it attracts pollinators before it breaks down and becomes undetectable,” Riffel explained.

According to researchers, primroses may experience more difficulty producing seeds 28%, due to moths' inability to find flowers, reports Popular Science. This assessment only applies to the impact of moth pollination on primrose due to disturbances, so negative impacts may be more widespread.

“Pollinators play a huge role in community ecology; They are important for plant health. If you affect that, you're going to have environmental-level impacts,” Riffel told Popular Science. „Pollinators are critical to our food system and food security.”

In January, scientists published a separate study Potential effects of air pollution on insect pollination. That study noted how air pollutants can inhibit floral scents and visual cues such as plant petal size and possible color.

Growing research on how air pollutants affect pollinators and plants highlights the urgency to reduce human-caused pollution. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 40% Global insect pollinators are at risk. If pollutants alter the ability of insects to detect plants, it further threatens pollinators and plant reproduction.

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