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Fears for Australia’s Famous Migrating Moth

Australian bogong moths rest on a piece of material in Sydney Oct. 28, 2003.
Australian bogong moths rest on a piece of material in Sydney Oct. 28, 2003.

Conservationists are blaming climate change, land clearing and pesticides for the population crash of one of Australia’s most famous insects. Once a common sight, bogong moths have become rare in recent years. They are now recognized as endangered by the world's leading scientific authority on vulnerable species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The bogong moth is native to Australia. The mass migration of billions of the small insects has long been a spectacular sight in eastern Australia.

Scientists say the moths are guided by the stars and the earth’s magnetic fields.

They fly up to 1,000 kilometers from Queensland to the mountains of Victoria to shelter in caves from the heat of summer. In the caves, it was once estimated there were as many as 17,000 moths per square meter.

But Jess Abrahams, a nature campaigner from the Australian Conservation Foundation says bogong moth numbers have collapsed.

“It is a dramatic decline, and this population crash has been caused by climate change-fueled extreme drought in their breeding grounds in western Queensland. There has also been land clearing over many years, use of pesticides as well and the consequence is a huge crash in numbers and the flow-on affects to other species is of huge concern. This should be an alarm bell because we are in the midst of an extinction crisis. We are seeing (a) million species globally at risk of extinction and literally these things are disappearing before our very eyes," Abrahams said.

The decline of the bogong moth has a cascading effect on other species. They were a major source of food for another critically endangered animal, the mountain pygmy-possum. Fewer than 2,000 of Australia’s only hibernating marsupials are thought to be left in the wild.

The moth is one of 124 Australian animals and plants that were added in December to the "Red List" of threatened species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They include several other types of insects and the grey-headed flying fox, which is Australia's largest bat.

The Red List classifies how close global animal, plant and fungi species are to dying out, and includes sharks, rays and birds. Many populations are strained by global warming, deforestation, habitat loss and pollution.

Campaigners are urging the Australian government to do more to save the moths that were once in such abundance in cities such as Sydney and Canberra that their vast numbers disrupted sporting events.