Scientists warn humanity about worldwide insect decline


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Engaging civil society and policy makers is essential for the future and mutual well-being both of people and insects. In addition to mitigating climate change, an important aspect of the solution involves setting aside high-quality and manageable portions of land for conservation, and transforming global agricultural practices to promote species co-existence.

Scientists warn humanity about worldwide insect decline
Polygrapha suprema (Schaus, 1920), a rare and endangered butterfly exclusive to the high mountains
of Atlantic Forest (Brazil). Threatened by habitat loss [Credit: Augusto Rosa]

Humanity is pushing many ecosystems beyond recovery. As a consequence, unquantified and unquantifiable insect extinctions are happening every day. Two scientific papers by 30 experts from around the world discuss both the perils and ways to avoid further extinctions, intending to contribute towards a necessary change of attitude for humanity’s own sake.

“It is surprising how little we know about biodiversity at a global level, when only about 10 to 20 per cent of insect and other invertebrate species have been described and named. And of those with a name, we know little more than a brief morphological description, maybe a part of the genetic code and a single site where it was seen some time ago,” says Pedro Cardoso, from the Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus, University of Helsinki, Finland.

The results of recently published works make it clear that the situation is dire

Habitat loss, pollution – including harmful agricultural practices, invasive species that do not encounter borders, climate change, overexploitation and extinction of dependent species all variably contribute to documented insect population declines and species extinctions.

Scientists warn humanity about worldwide insect decline
Prionotropis rhodanica Uvarov, 1923, the Crau Plain Grasshopper, critically endangered and exclusive
to southern France. Threatened by habitat loss including road construction
[Credit: Axel Hochkirch]

“With species loss, we lose not only another piece of the complex puzzle that is our living world, but also biomass, essential for example to feed other animals in the living chain, unique genes and substances that might one day contribute to cure diseases, and ecosystem functions on which humanity depends,” confirms Cardoso.

The ecosystem functions he mentions include pollination, as most crops depend on insects to survive. Additionally, decomposition, as they contribute to nutrient cycling, as well as many other functions for which we have no technological or other replacement.

Practical solutions to mitigate insect apocalypse

The researchers also suggest possible practical solutions based on existing evidence gathered from around the world, which would help to avoid further insect population loss and species extinctions. These include actions such as setting aside high-quality and manageable portions of land for conservation, transforming global agricultural practices to promote species co-existence, and mitigating climate change.

Scientists warn humanity about worldwide insect decline
Drivers (in red) and consequences (in blue) of insect extinctions. Note that drivers often act synergistically
or through indirect effects (e.g., climate change favours many invasive species and the loss of habitat).
All these consequences contribute to the loss of ecosystem services essential for humans
[Credit: Pedro Cardoso]

Above all, communicating and engaging with civil society and policy makers is essential for the future and mutual well-being both of people and insects.

“While small groups of people can impact insect conservation locally, collective consciousness and a globally coordinated effort for species inventorying, monitoring and conservation is required for large-scale recovery” says Michael Samways, Distinguished Professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

Ideas to help insects

1. Avoid mowing your garden frequently; let nature grow and feed insects.

2. Plant native plants; many insects need only these to survive.

3. Avoid pesticides; go organic, at least for your own backyard.

4. Leave old trees, stumps and dead leaves alone; they are home to countless species.

5. Build an insect hotel with small horizontal holes that can become their nests.

6. Reduce your carbon footprint; this affects insects as much as other organisms.

7. Support and volunteer in conservation organizations.

8. Do not import or release living animals or plants into the wild that could harm native species.

9. Be more aware of tiny creatures; always look on the small side of life.

The two studies are published in the open access journal Biological Conservation [paper 1, paper 2]

Author: Pedro Cardoso | Source: University of Helsinki [February 10, 2020]



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