Australian Bogong moths Agrotis infusa (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), 1951–2020: decline and crash

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

Abstract

The Bogong moth Agrotis infusa is well known for its remarkable long-distance migration – a return journey from the plains of southeast Australia to the Australian Alps – as well as for its cultural significance for Indigenous Australians. Each Spring, as many as four billion moths are estimated to arrive in the Australian Alps to aestivate in cool mountain caves and in boulder fields, bringing with them a massive annual influx of energy and nutrients critical for the health of the alpine ecosystem. However, a massive decline in moths present at their aestivation sites has occurred over the past 3 years, with only a few individuals present where hundreds of thousands could earlier be found. In order to understand the possible sources of decline, we analysed historical records of Bogong moth numbers at aestivation sites in the Australian Alps, including observations on Mt. Gingera (NSW) in the early 1950s, observations from 1980 onwards in the Snowy Mountains (NSW) and an almost-unbroken series of observations each summer over the past 53 years in three caves at different elevations on Mt. Buffalo (Victoria). This analysis shows that moth numbers were probably steady from 1951 until about 1980, fluctuated and slowly fell from then until 2016 and dramatically crashed in 2017. In the Murray–Darling Basin, the main winter breeding ground of Bogong moths, changes in farming practices, such as increasing land clearing for crops (which has removed around a quarter of a billion moths annually from the mountains compared to pre-European levels), has probably driven some of the decline in Bogong moth numbers observed from 1980 to 2016. The impact of insecticide remains unclear and is in urgent need of further study. Even though we found little evidence that increasing global temperatures per se are responsible for the Bogong moth decline, the Australian climate has nonetheless become drier and warmer over past decades, possibly hampering the survival of immature stages in the breeding areas and confining adult aestivation to gradually higher elevations. The crash in moth numbers from 2017 is most likely due to the recent severe drought in the moth's breeding grounds.

Details

Authors
Organisations
External organisations
  • Australian National University
  • University of South Australia
  • Data61, CSIRO
  • No affiliation available (private)
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Ecology

Keywords

  • Agrotis infusa, alpine ecosystem, Bogong moth, climate change, historical record, insect decline, migration
Original languageEnglish
JournalAustral Entomology
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2020 Dec 18
Publication categoryResearch
Peer-reviewedYes