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New York City’s major airport is buzzing with traffic – and it’s not just airliners.

Grasslands at the John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport are teeming with insect life, a new survey finds, suggesting that even one of the world’s busiest airports can be an important refuge for urban wildlife.

Using nets and a leafblower converted into a specialized backpack bug vacuum, researchers repeatedly combed four of JFK’s grassland habitats for insects during 2003 and 2004. Overall, they bagged 8,532 insects and other arthropods (such as spiders and mites) from 125 taxonomic families. Among the most common catches: leafhoppers, aphids and “froghoppers” in the family Hemiptera; grasshoppers and crickets in the family Orthoptera; and grass and flower flies in the family Diptera.

That census compares favorably to counts done in farm fields and wild grasslands, the research team – led by entomologists Lisa Kutschbach-Brohl and  Brian Washburn of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Sandusky, Ohio – conclude in the current Journal of Insect Conservation. It also means that even a huge airport may have “significant conservation value for arthropod communities within this urban environment” – especially since most other New York City grasslands are smaller and much more manicured. A next step, the researchers say, is to see exactly what kind of rare or endangered insect species might be hiding in the grass. – David Malakoff

Source: Kutschbach-Brohl, L., Washburn, B., Bernhardt, G., Chipman, R., & Francoeur, L. (2010). Arthropods of a semi-natural grassland in an urban environment: the John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York.  Journal of Insect Conservation, DOI: 10.1007/s10841-010-9264-8

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