Waterside lighting drastically disrupts wildlife in the surrounding ecosystem

Streetlights affect insects and spiders living beneath the lights, finds a study in Frontiers in Environmental Science


The potential ecological impacts of new lighting concepts on ecosystems should be considered by landscape- and urban planners, lighting engineers and ecologists. Image: Shutterstock

Night-time electric lighting near water affects the number and types of insects and spiders living in grass beneath the lights

— By Conn Hastings

Researchers in Germany have found that streetlights near waterways can disrupt the surrounding ecosystem by attracting flying insects from the water and changing the predator community living in the grass beneath the lights. The findings show that night-time artificial lighting could have implications for the surrounding ecosystem and biodiversity.

Artificial night-time lighting is increasing worldwide at a rate of approximately 3–6% a year. One drawback of street lighting is its effect on flying insects, many of which have an insatiable attraction to these lights at night.

“Artificial lighting at night-time is a major component of global environmental change and a threat to biodiversity,” explains Alessandro Manfrin, a researcher at the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) and now the Environmental Campus Birkenfeld, University of Applied Sciences Trier. “This is particularly true near rivers and lakes, where human populations are concentrated.”

Aquatic ecosystems such as rivers and lakes are heavily interconnected with the ecosystems of their banks and shores. Introducing artificial lighting along riverbanks or lakeshores could have disruptive effects on these fragile ecosystems.

However, examining the effect of waterside lighting on the surrounding ecosystem is not an easy task. Urban environments affect biodiversity in a variety of ways, such as through pollution and habitat loss, making it difficult to know which factors are causing which effects.

To investigate this phenomenon far away from the influence of an urban environment, Manfrin and his colleagues set up a series of streetlamps beside two different drainage ditches in a nature reserve in Germany. This remote area is one of the least illuminated areas in the entire country, meaning that the wildlife there had never been exposed to artificial light or other disruptive factors associated with urban environments.

Throughout the study, published in Frontiers in Environmental Science, the researchers turned on the streetlamps at one of the ditches every night, but left the lamps at the other ditch permanently off. They used traps to investigate the types of insects and other invertebrates that were present at each site.

Some of the team’s traps caught insects as they emerged from the water in the ditches. The researchers found that there were many more insects leaving the water from the illuminated ditch. The lights may have made it easier for larger fish to hunt and eat smaller fish that normally prey on insects, allowing more insects to survive and thrive.

As expected, the team also found far more flying insects near the illuminated lamps themselves, compared with the lamps that were never on. This seems to have had a knock-on effect on predators that live in the grass below the lamps. “The abundance of several nocturnal spiders increased at the illuminated bank, and their activity was extended into the day, while the abundance of nocturnal ground beetles decreased,” says Manfrin.

The study shows just how disruptive artificial lighting can be for wildlife. “We showed that artificial light affects insect behaviour, and that this has the potential to change ecosystem dynamics,” says Manfrin. “It is important to account for potential ecological impacts when designing new lighting concepts, and these and other similar results should be considered by landscape- and urban planners, lighting engineers, and terrestrial and aquatic ecologists.”

This work was carried out within the Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate Program SMART, funded by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency of the European Commission. Funding was also provided by the Federal Ministry of Research and Technology, Germany (BMBF-033L038A) and the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Germany (FKZ 3514821700).

Original research article: Artificial Light at Night Affects Organism Flux across Ecosystem Boundaries and Drives Community Structure in the Recipient Ecosystem

Corresponding author: Alessandro Manfrin

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