Gritting roads with salt makes butterflies STRONGER: Insects that eat sodium-rich roadside plants have bigger flight muscles
Gritting roads with salt increases the wing and brain power of butterflies
Researchers from Minnesota analysed sodium levels in roadside plants
This included grass, mustard, oak and milkweed growing in ditches within 16 feet (5 metres) from a county road
They compared this to plants up to 330 feet (100 metres) from a paved road
Male butterflies that fed on plants rich in sodium had bigger flight muscles
And female monarch butterflies were found to have larger eyes and brains
Gritting the roads with salt increases wing power in butterflies and boosts their brain size, claim scientists.
A study by Minnesota University found male insects that fed on plants rich in sodium that had run off from nearby roads had bigger muscles – while the females had larger eyes.
Researchers claim this suggests humans are having a previously unknown effect on wildlife.
Researchers from Minnesota University have found that salt run-off from roads – such as when it is used to clear snow – altered development of the brain and flight muscles in insects such as monarch butterflies (stock image shown), making the males of the species stronger and the females smarter
HOW DO BUTTERFLIES EAT?
Butterflies have a long narrow tube in their mouth called a proboscis that acts as a straw.
They usually set on top of a flower and drink the nectar.
They also feed on small puddles on the ground or wet areas on leaves and plant.
They can even taste with their feet.
They have six legs and they each have sensors on them that can tell just by landing on a flower what it tastes like.
Butterflies can eat anything that can dissolve in water – including tree sap, dung, pollen or rotting fruit.
Salt as well as many other minerals is vital for the butterflies’ reproduction.
Butterflies do not eat but suck up fluids containing nectar and other nutrients.
They are particularly fond of salt, which is why they often land on people to feast on their sweat.
Now, researchers have found salt run-off from roads – such as when it is used to clear snow – altered development of their brain and flight muscles.
They compared levels of sodium in grass, mustard, oak and milkweed growing in ditches within 16 feet (five metres) of a county road, and in prairies at least 330 feet (100 metres) from a paved road in a nature reserve near Minneapolis.
The roadside milkweed and oak had 1.5 to 30 times higher concentrations of sodium in its leaves, compared with those further away.
When monarch butterflies were reared on roadside milkweed containing 16 times more salt males had an increased amount of thoracic protein – an indicator for wing power that is crucial to the insects’ migration.
Female monarchs had larger eyes relative to those reared on prairie milkweed, while cabbage white butterflies raised on an artificial diet with medium (3,000 parts per million) or low (400 parts per million) sodium levels showed developmental differences.
Males on the medium sodium diet had greater thoracic protein, whereas females had greater brain volume.
Dr Emilie Snell-Rood, of Minnesota University, and colleagues said the long-term consequences of human-caused changes to micro-nutrients on plant fitness and foraging warrant further study.
‘Sodium is an essential micro-nutrient often limited in animal diets,’ she said.
‘Human activity is drastically altering patterns of sodium availability particularly through road salt application – but we know little about the consequences of such anthropogenic change on the development and evolution of wild animals.
‘Here we show road salt run off affects sodium concentrations of roadside plants which in turn have significant, sometimes positive effects on neural and muscular development of herbivores.