Since ancient times, Locusts swarms have wrecked harvests and caused starvation. The results are so destructive that in Exodus, God has used it as the eighth of ten plagues upon Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free.
Locusts are actually a genus of grasshoppers with small horns. Swarms can arise out of nowhere and devastate crops across vast swaths of land. Over the last three years large parts of Africa, India and Pakistan have been hard-hit by locust outbreaks. In one of the greatest locust plagues has been wreaking havoc on areas of East Africa eating up to 1.8 million tonnes of vegetation daily. They swarm in swarms of up to 80 million locusts per square kilometer.
A new study at Tel Aviv University researchers, led by Prof. Amir Ayali and PhD student Omer Lavy from the School of Zoology. discovered that when a lonely locust joins a community, its microbiome undergoes a drastic change: bacteria called Weissella become prominent in the gregarious phase.
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Additionally, a mathematical model constructed specifically for this study reveals that swarming may confer evolutionary advantages on these bacteria, allowing them to proliferate and infect vast numbers of locusts.
“Our findings do not prove unequivocally that these bacteria cause locusts to swarm and migrate,” said the researchers. “They do however lead us to propose a new hypothesis – that the microbiome, and specifically the Weissella bacteria, play an important role in inducing the locusts’ aggregation behavior. We hope that this new understanding will drive the development of new means for combating locust outbreaks – still a major threat to countless people, animals, and plants all over the globe.”
Prof. Ayali concludes: “Our study contributes to the understanding of locust swarming – a leading cause of famine from antiquity to the present. Our findings do not prove unequivocally that the Weissella bacteria are responsible for the swarming and migration of locusts. The results do however suggest a high probability that the bacteria play an important role in inducing this behavior – a new hypothesis never previously proposed. We hope that this new understanding will drive the development of new means for combating locust outbreaks – still a major threat to countless people, animals, and plants all over the globe.”
Although the reason hwo and why locusts evolved to swarm is still unknown, a 2008 study claimed that it is because swarms reduce the gaps between individual locust patches, making it more difficult for predators to travel among them and pick the insects off.
The study was published in Environmental Microbiology,