Biting reaction: Moth discovery reveals ecological secrets

Image copyright SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY Image caption Researchers scanned moth genes to determine the kind of regeneration they would experience

A new moth species could show how immune systems develop and resist attack, scientists have discovered.

A group of researchers from South Africa discovered a distinct hairless moth that could also generate “positive signals” as a defence mechanism.

We know they have these responses to allergens, but what we don’t know is whether they can actually sustain it in the wild. Andrew Hempsall, UK – Wildlife Scientist

And they are also being attacked by rival species.

“We are testing now how the genetic fitness of these new species could benefit or hinder our understanding of immune responses and pests,” said Kevin Woodward, a biologist at the University of Gauteng in Johannesburg.

Dr Woodward was one of a team of scientists that first spotted the moth more than 20 years ago while carrying out studies on Galapagos giant tortoises in the South African bush.

“We caught a couple of them and they were absolutely stunning – we knew this was something we had to follow up,” he said.

“We discovered we didn’t have access to sufficient genetic material and that there was a lot of inbreeding.

“We were not able to study these particular species in great detail, or certainly for a long time.”

Image copyright SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY Image caption Researchers discovered this moth was spawned with a different kind of egg

But in 2008, Dr Woodward and his colleagues decided to open the book.

The scientists, who call the creature ganambensis hormus, scanned the moth’s genes to understand the kinds of regeneration it would experience.

They found a gene that allowed its offspring to grow hairless and able to survive attacks from rival species.

The researchers also noticed similarities between ganambensis moth and the allergic reaction that the creatures would produce in response to an attack.

But when the scientists bred the inbred mole, the genes transferred to offspring never appeared.

Experts have used the discovery of the moth to potentially make better understanding of our bodies.

They say it could teach us about how we can improve the responses we produce when vulnerable to attacks.

Image copyright Image caption Scientists used the discovery of ganambensis species to potentially make better understanding of our bodies

“At the moment we do not understand how these negative reactions work, how these genes get involved, what is stopping these genes doing their job in a competent manner,” said Andrew Hempsall, a wildlife scientist at the National Trust and conservation charity The Mammal Society.

“That is what we don’t fully understand today. We know they have these responses to allergens, but what we don’t know is whether they can actually sustain it in the wild.”

Dr Woodward said the moth was also adapting in a way that allowed it to survive on other animals.

“We can’t look at it in isolation, we have to go out and actually keep an eye on these moth populations and to be able to preserve that delicate balance between the numbers of other wild species and the populations of these insects that we are seeing in the conservation system,” he said.

But he said the discovery could also teach us about the way a moth’s genes dealt with emerging diseases.

“We are not sure of this yet, but we can always look at the same gene and look at how it is responding to some of the emerging diseases such as dengue virus – how that is responding in the wild.

“One of the things we would like to investigate very closely is whether these genes are transferable.

“Are some of the genes that are protecting this moth out there also protected other animals as well.”

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