Where Is the Love for Bugs?

By: Rachel Nuwer, The New York Times
October 13, 2011

The deserta wolf-spider of Portugal, which is not protected and has never been studied. Photo Credit: Pedro Cardoso
The deserta wolf-spider of Portugal, which is not protected and has never been studied. Photo Credit: Pedro Cardoso

“If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change,” the biologist E.O. Wilson once wrote. But if invertebrates were to vanish, he said, “I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months.”

Although Dr. Wilson has been appealing for invertebrate conservation for decades, few policy makers or environmental groups have taken heed. But a growing number of scientists are determined to change that.

Among them is Pedro Cardoso, an entomologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the University of the Azores in Portugal who was the lead author of a recent article addressing the problem in the journal Biological Conservation.

“Nowadays there’s a great concern about biodiversity in general, but this is usually focused on vertebrates, while invertebrates are largely neglected,” he said in an interview. “This is a good time to start changing the current thinking that only some species are worth preserving and start thinking about the smaller components of diversity.”

By smaller, of course, he means physical size — not abundance or importance. Invertebrates are essential for daily activities that Homo sapiens and countless other species rely on. Pollinators like bees and butterflies ensure crop production, oysters and mussels filter water, and invertebrates ranging from mosquitoes to shrimp serve as a major food source.

In the United States, insects alone provide so-called ecosystem services (a growing field of academic study) valued at $57 billion annually. Invertebrates spin the web that holds ecological systems together.

There is no shortage of cool invertebrate facts. More than 25,000 species of arthropods occupy a single acre of rain forest in the Amazon. There is more ant biomass in the soil of the Serengeti plains than there is of all surface mammals combined. Some jumping spiders are as smart as mice in the way they learn and memorize. About 80 percent of all known species are invertebrates, with beetles alone accounting for at least 10 times as many species as all vertebrates combined.

For entomologists like Dr. Cardoso, the urgency of calling more attention to invertebrates arises partly from potential extinction crises driven by human activity. Invertebrates are vulnerable to many of the same threats that beloved species like tigers and pandas are, even if the layman understands far less about their ecological functions.

With an estimated 3,000 species being lost each year, or eight species a day, it is conceivable that many will vanish before scientists even know they existed.

Globally, invertebrates are largely neglected in conservation studies and policy-making. In compiling its Red List of Threatened Species, considered the go-to database for animals at risk, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature surveyed less than one-half of 1 percent of arthropods and 4 percent of mollusks. Most vertebrates, on the other hand, have already been assessed.

Given their roles in maintaining a healthy planet, the invertebrates’ relative absence from these lists and the resulting lack of conservation support is “markedly inappropriate,” the researchers write.

So why the lack of love for bugs? To hear the researchers tell it, the reasons can be broken down into what one might call the seven deadly sins of invertebrate conservation, with blame shared by both scientists and society at large.

For starters, the public is largely unaware of the good things invertebrates do for us. As ushers of plague, famine, and pestilence, insects get a particularly bad rap (bees and butterflies excepted). And public support is vital to fund-raising and the passage of legislation on species protection.

“It’s the public who votes on politicians, and politicians who decide what kind of science is or isn’t funded,” Dr. Cardoso said. “If these problems are solved, the rest will follow.” The researchers suggest fostering public interest in invertebrates through deeper news coverage, documentary film-making and the dissemination of photographs, books and art.

“If you have a grizzly bear or a beautiful bird, many people are engaged right away,” says Mace Vaughan, director of the Pollinator Conservation Program at the Xerces Society, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore., that is dedicated to protecting invertebrates. “People think all invertebrates have an ick factor, but in fact almost all don’t.”

Aside from pollination, he said in an interview, most people are unaware of roles that insects play, such as managing other pest species and moving the energy that plants capture from the sun into other trophic levels of an ecosystem.

Stakeholders like forest managers or policy makers are also at fault. Many assume that protecting large animals like jaguars or rhinos will in turn help tiny invertebrates survive. Dr. Cardoso and other researchers say that common assumption is largely untested and unsupported.

A better solution would be to simply include invertebrates on lists of threatened species and draft protection measures tailored to invertebrates, they say.

Another challenge is addressing a shortfall of taxonomists, those patient few who spend their days identifying specimens: they have become a rare breed as doctoral candidates in the sciences opt for more modern fields of study. Amateurs and hobbyists can fill the gap, though, thanks to digital advances that enable any enthusiast to submit data and images of new specimens to online databases.

The Xerces Society is a big fan of citizen science. Thanks to volunteers combing their backyards and community gardens, the rusty-patched bumble bee — a prolific pollinator that is currently in steep decline — was identified in 13 new sites that can now be protected.

The final impediment, of course, is the sheer dimension of the unknown: most species of invertebrates have yet to be discovered, much less counted or studied in terms of their adaptation to changes to their habitat.

Financing and logistical support will be crucial for getting such efforts off the ground, Dr. Cardoso said — but the baseline support “must come from the public in general.”

“It’s relatively easy to overcome these problems,” he said. “By saving invertebrates, we’re saving biodiversity. There’s no way around this.”

Read the article in The New York Times


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