Brandi Wampler | February 5, 2020
At the beginning of each summer, mayfly larvae emerge from bodies of water and shed their skin to become full-fledged mayflies, similar to how caterpillars become butterflies. Then, all at once, a swarm of these insects fly away together to reproduce, acting as an important component in the food chain for birds.
Researchers at the University of Notre Dame, University of Oklahoma and Virginia Tech applied radar technology, the same used for meteorology, to quantify the number of mayflies that emerged annually from two different bodies of water: the Upper Mississippi River and the Western Lake Erie Basin. Their goal was to characterize the size of these swarms using the same technique a meteorologist would use to quantify the amount of precipitation that may fall from a cloud.
Pulling radar data from the two locations over a span of eight years, the research team estimated that up to 88 billion mayflies can swarm from each location annually.
“Approximately 88 billion mayflies equate to about 12 trillion calories in the food web, feeding about 54 million baby birds. Therefore, we can assume these insects have a nearly instant impact on the birds that survive off of them when they descend upon their respective shorelines,” said Phillip Stepanian, assistant research professor of civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences, lead author, and affiliated member of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative (ND-ECI).
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