Blue tits, a familiar garden bird, could be the salvation of our imperilled conker trees, which are under severe attack by a tiny non-native moth that has spread from continental Europe.A blue tit in front of horse-chestnut leaves damaged by a non-native leaf mining moth Photo: Richard Broughton/CEH

Conker fans from across the country are being called upon to discover how many of the moth’s caterpillars, hidden inside the leaves, are being discovered and preyed upon by birds.

The leaf-mining moth arrived in London just ten years ago, and has since spread across most of England and Wales. The moth caterpillars eat the leaves while hiding inside them, so damaging the leaves and causing them to turn brown and making the tree appear as if autumn has come early.

Experts at the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and the University of Hull are asking today (30 August 2012) for the public’s help to find out how many moth caterpillars are eaten by birds, such as blue tits. They are asking volunteers to check leaves from a horse chestnut tree for the distinctive damage caused by the birds to the leaf mines and report it through the Conker Tree Science website.

Dr Michael Pocock, from CEH, said, “It’s a big mission and we’re reliant on people’s help to discover how much birds are feeding on the alien moths.”

"Excitingly, this mission was inspired by comments from some of the 8000 people who have taken part in previous Conker Tree Science missions. It’s a great example of professional scientists and members of the public working together.”

Dr Darren Evans from the University of Hull added, “The traditional game of conkers may be under threat, because trees infected with the alien moth produce smaller conkers. In discovering whether garden birds, like blue tits, can help to protect conker trees, we will also be learning more about the behaviour of the birds themselves.”The signs of a bird attack on the leaf mine home of the moth that is damaging horse-chestnut trees Photo: Dr Michael Pocock/CEH

The alien moth, which was discovered in the 1980s, has caterpillars that live inside the leaves, forming distinctive patches of damage called "leaf mines". Up to 700 leaf mines have been recorded on a single leaf and the damage caused by large numbers of larvae can be striking. A previous Conker Tree Science mission discovered that predatory wasps were not effectively controlling the alien moths, possibly explaining their rapid spread.

This project, where anyone can get involved with genuine scientific research, is one of the largest of its kind in the UK and is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Find out more by visiting the Conker Tree Science project's website. People can take part in the new "Bird Attack" mission from 30 August 2012 to 23 September 2012.

Additional information

CEH issued a press release for this story.

Detailed instructions for the latest Conker Tree Science mission: Bird Attack

Conker Tree Science is a project in which anyone can take part in real hypothesis-led research. It started in 2010 with two missions. The 8000 people involved in the project during 2010 and 2011 showed that both the amount of damage caused by the moth and the number of natural pest-controlling wasps increased with the number of years that the moth had been present in a location. In 2011 Conker Tree Science launched the LeafWatch smartphone app (for iPhones and Android) for people to record the damage to conker tree leaves. This Conker Tree Science mission, looking at attacks on the moths by birds, continues to allow people to take part in real scientific research by making observations and submitting results on their website

 

 

 

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