Warning: This post will not be my usual happy, hooray for nature type post. This one deals with a serious issue and may be considered depressing to some readers. Consider yourself warned.
The Zoological Society of London recently released a publication called Priceless or Worthless? The World’s Most Threatened Species. In spite of the fact that I absolutely hate the title (I don’t like to think of any species as worthless, no matter how few of them are left), I was eager to look through the document to see what sorts of invertebrates their list contained. I was happy to see that several insects and other arthropods are featured, including a few damselflies, a few butterflies, a spider, a crab, a cricket, a bee. I think it’s fantastic that so many invertebrates made the list as it means that people out there care whether these animals live or disappear forever, and that sort of attention and love is rarely bestowed on the spineless creatures of our planet. It’s sad that these creatures made the list in the first place, but it also means that they will get a lot of attention, and that’s a good thing. Insects and their relatives get far too little attention when it comes to endangered and threatened species lists and it’s high time we started paying more attention to them.
Looking at the list as a whole, however, got me thinking. Yes, there are several insects on the list, but I noticed something else: there are a lot freshwater species listed overall. This wasn’t especially surprising as I know how specialized aquatic organisms can be, how they can be so incredibly picky about where they live that it puts them at risk when anything in their environment changes. For example, amphibians have been on the decline for years. Scientists have variously pointed to habitat destruction, pollution of aquatic habitats, increased UV radiation passing through a thinner ozone layer, climate change, and the recent epidemic of chytrid fungus throughout most of the world as explanations for the decline. In some areas, a combination of these factors have even led to extinctions of amphibian species and may lead to more in the future. Amphibians are incredibly sensitive to changes in their environments, and that’s not really a good trait to have in a changing world.
But frogs are big, showy animals that a lot of people like. Many aquatic insects are likely similarly sensitive to changes in their environments, but we know so little about them we can’t even describe the distribution of many species with any sort of accuracy. One species of riffle beetle was described from specimens found only in a single stream in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona, but is that really the only place they live? Is a population still found there? And what about the big Horseshoe 2 fire there two summers ago that burned a huge part of the mountain range? Riffle beetles generally require clear, cool, flowing water to survive and that one population was likely incapable of surviving ash flows. Has that species gone extinct? Does anyone know?
Priceless or Worthless also includes an 8-page list of species that have already gone extinct. Among the relatively small handful of insects that are known to have disappeared (and there are half as many insect species listed as birds, in spite of being a much more diverse group), you see the usual trends: mostly butterflies and moths with some beetles and several aquatic insects. The latter include caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies, insects that are generally sensitive to pollution, habitat loss, and other changes in their habitats. However, that list includes only species that we know have gone extinct. How many insect species have disappeared without our even noticing? I think we’d be lucky to observe the disappearance of most species. And then there are the untold millions of insects that we haven’t even cataloged and named. There are so many insects out there that it’s simply impossible to monitor them all and we know very, very little about most species. That, combined with the public relations problems that insects typically face, means that insects are often ignored when endangered species lists are compiled. It is likely that countless species have gone extinct without ever even drawing our attention.
Looking through the list of the 100 most threatened animals and seeing some aquatic insects and other aquatic organisms there gives me hope that people do care about these species and are working to protect them. That’s a step in the right direction. But are we going to be able to save them? Consider this: the human population topped 7 billion people about a year ago. We added 1 billion people between 1999 and 2011. That’s 1 BILLION more people who needed places to live. That’s 1 BILLION people who needed water to drink. That’s 1 BILLION people who depended on crops that require watering. That’s 1 BILLION people who produced more waste, a lot of which ended up in our waterways. Many of the world’s great rivers are already so badly polluted that they are becoming virtually unusable by humans (the Yangtze River, for instance). Many of our rivers have seen severely depressed flow over the last 100 years such that even mighty rivers like the Colorado River, once a lush and vibrant river along its entire length from the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of California, only rarely reach the ocean now. We humans are in direct competition with aquatic plants, animals, and other organisms for aquatic resources. When it comes down to a choice between us or them, does that rare caddisfly living in one stretch of one mountain stream have any chance as the human need for water advances into its habitat?
If you haven’t noticed from my writing on this blog, I love this planet. I try to stay positive about things, think that we can make things better. For the most part I focus on all the positive, wonderful things in our world. But, I also recognize that my favorite insects, the ones that live in my favorite habitats, really are at risk of extinction. I know I would gladly give up a golf course to save a caddisfly species when both required the water. I would gladly forego a lush, green lawn to ensure that my unborn children have a chance to see a rare stonefly in a local stream. I like to believe that a lot of people would do the same if they recognized the risk these animals face (that’s one of the seven impediments to invertebrate conservation I discussed back in January). However, if we ever have to decide between getting enough water to drink and saving that caddisfly or that rare stonefly, it’s unlikely to end well for the insects.
So what can I do about it? Well, I’m going to keep blogging for starters. Very few non-scientists even know aquatic insects exist, so getting information about aquatic species out there into the world is a good thing to do. I can educate people through my job and encourage people in my area to conserve water. I will continue photographing aquatic insects because I believe people are less inclined to let a species go extinct if they can attach a face to it than if it remains a total stranger. I can continue to make changes in my own life to help alleviate some of the stress on our aquatic habitats. I truly believe we can coexist with the species around us with proper education, planning, and awareness of how our actions impact our world. And indeed, Priceless or Worthless ends on a similar note, describing some conservation successes, species that have recovered after nearly going extinct. There aren’t any insects on that list, but there have been some successes in saving butterfly and dragonfly populations from extinction over the last few years that weren’t featured. It’s my hope that someday I will see an insect on that conservation success list – and maybe it will even be aquatic.