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Cells could be the death of insects

Lunes 3 de marzo de 2008 · 1540 lecturas

Cells could be the death of insects

Guy Rogers ENVIRONMENT &0x0026; TOURISM EDITOR

TWO top South African insect specialists are in the final phase of a three-year study aimed at determining if there is a link between cellphone base stations and a perceived decline in insect populations.

Dr Max Clark and Peter Hawkes were commissioned by the Oppenheimer family business, E Oppenheimer and Son, following observations documented at the groups Brenthurst Gardens in Johannesburg and its Emzemvelo Nature Reserve at Bronkhorstspruit. “About R1-million” had been invested in the project so far, group conservation manager Duncan MacFadyen said.

Clark said the project had been initiated by Strilli Oppenheimer, wife of De Beers mining giant chairman Nicky Oppenheimer.

“She is very observant and has taken a great interest in the ecological balance of their properties. She was worried that she was seeing far fewer insects than she had 20 years ago, in particular the moths that used to gather at night around lights in the grounds. She wanted to know what was causing this.”

One of the possible reasons suggested by Oppenheimer was that electro-magnetic field (EMF) rays from the proliferation in urban areas of new cellphone base stations especially - but also by TV towers and Eskom pylons - might be interfering with insects ability to communicate and reproduce.

The scientists set out to ascertain whether this was a factor and they also considered soil and light pollution and disturbance of habitat.

Starting with Brenthurst and Emzemvelo, they had moved their focus to 24 urban and rural sites around greater Gauteng ranging from 8ha to several hundred hectares.

They collected some 70000 sample insects, focusing on ants and ground beetles or “toktokkies”, Clarke explained.

Ants perform an earth-turning role similar to earthworms and carry bits of vegetation below ground to eat - key indicators of habitat health. The remains survive and re-grow, helping these plants to survive in the event of fire.

Some ant species are also key to the development of Lycaenid butterflies, carrying them below ground and protecting them from predators while drawing amino acids and carbohydrates from the larvae. Flightless beetles were important because they were more likely to be restricted to certain areas than flying beetles, Clark said. Using these indicator species, the scientists documented the diversity of insect species, population numbers, behaviour and other characteristics.

One of the “bi-catch” benefits of the study was the discovery of a number of new species of beetles and ants. On the specific research topic, a treasure trove of data and definite differences had been recorded at the different sites. This information was being analysed, said Clarke.

Ecologist Dr Mike Cohen, former director of the East Cape nature conservation department, said the results of the Oppenheimer project were of considerable significance because insects played a key role in nature.

“Depending on the results, it could mean a lot more will have to be taken into consideration when impact assessments for cellphone base stations or other transmitters are done.”

The results of the project are due to be presented by Clarke and Hawkes at Little Brenthurst on March 11.

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