Automated moth flight analysis in the vicinity of artificial light

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    Instrumentation and software for the automated analysis of insect flight trajectories is described, intended for quantifying the behavioural dynamics of moths in the vicinity of artificial light. For its time, this moth imaging system was relatively advanced and revealed hitherto undocumented insights into moth flight behaviour. The illumination source comprised a 125 W mercury vapour light, operating in the visible and near ultraviolet wavelengths, mounted on top of a mobile telescopic mast at heights of 5 and 7.1 m, depending upon the experiment. Moths were imaged in early September, at night and in field conditions, using a ground level video camera with associated optics including a heated steering mirror, wide angle lens and an electronic image intensifier. Moth flight coordinates were recorded at a rate of 50 images per second (fields) and transferred to a computer using a light pen (the only non-automated operation in the processing sequence). Software extracted ground speed vectors and, by instantaneous subtraction of wind speed data supplied by fast-response anemometers, the airspeed vectors. Accumulated density profiles of the track data revealed that moths spend most of their time at a radius of between 40 and 50 cm from the source, and rarely fly directly above it, from close range. Furthermore, the proportion of insects caught by the trap as a proportion of the number influenced by the light (and within the field of view of the camera) was very low; of 1600 individual tracks recorded over five nights, a total of only 12 were caught. Although trap efficiency is strongly dependent on trap height, time of night, season, moonlight and weather, the data analysis confirmed that moths do not exhibit straightforward positive phototaxis. In general, trajectory patterns become more complex with reduced distance from the illumination, with higher recorded values of speeds and angular velocities. However, these characteristics are further qualified by the direction of travel of the insect; the highest accelerations tended to occur when the insect was at close range, but moving away from the source. Rather than manifesting a simple positive phototaxis, the trajectories were suggestive of disorientation. Based on the data and the complex behavioural response, mathematical models were developed that described ideal density distribution in calm air and light wind speed conditions. The models did not offer a physiological hypothesis regarding the behavioural changes, but rather were tools for quantification and prediction. Since the time that the system was developed, instrumentation, computers and software have advanced considerably, allowing much more to be achieved at a small fraction of the original cost. Nevertheless, the analytical tools remain useful for automated trajectory analysis of airborne insects.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-14
    Number of pages14
    JournalBulletin of Entomological Research
    Early online date10 May 2018
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


    • insect trajectory imaging
    • moth flight analysis
    • moth phototaxis
    • video insect tracking


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