Swarming over locust records

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am

Ancient Chinese invented many things. A lesser-known innovation was the collection of records of locust infestations over more than 1,000 years. Ma Shijun of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is credited as being the first to study this massive record nearly 50 years ago. Academic Zhang Zhibin and his researchers have now taken a fresher look.

Emperors demanded collection of the data to determine patterns in locust populations in a bid to predict future swarms. Contrary to a popular misconception, migratory locusts are solitary insects but during a population surge, they swarm and ravish crops, often causing famine and social unrest in ancient times.

Zhang's team, whose findings have been published in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argue locust populations swelled in cooler temperatures rather than warmer ones. The team went through the records - believed to be the most extensive data on long-term climate changes and insect populations in history - decade by decade. Now, that's patience.