Science Sunday: Impediments to Invertebrate Conservation

Hadrurus arizonensis giant hairy scorpion

Giant hairy scorpion (Hadrurus arizonensis)

Back in October, the New York Times Green Blog featured a post about a paper that had been recently released covering seven major reasons why invertebrate conservation isn’t garnering as much attention as it should nor being acknowledged as an important use of conservation resources.  I liked the blog post, so I recently read the paper that it was based on.  I think the paper makes some great points, so I’d like to take you through it here.

Insects and other invertebrates make up the majority of the described species on the planet Earth.  About 80% of all described species (this includes everything – plants, mammals, bacteria, fungi, insects…) are invertebrates.  Beetles alone make up 25% of described species and outnumber vertebrate species ten to one.  Clearly, invertebrates are an important part of the world.  They also perform an enormous array of environmental functions, from decomposing organisms and fixing nitrogen in soils to controlling pest species and processing leaf materials in streams to begin the nutrient cycling that drives freshwater ecosystems.  The services invertebrates provide are important for a wide range of other organisms.  Thus, it is important that we consider invertebrates and their role in biological and chemical processes when making plans for the conservation of organisms.

Water scorpion, Ranatra quadridentata

Water scorpion, Ranatra quadridentata

However, that’s not what’s happening.  Invertebrates are widely ignored by conservationists in favor of the showier organisms, the warm and fuzzy creatures that make people say, “Awwww…” before reaching into their pockets to fund research.  Far fewer people who say, “Awwww…” and shell out a few bucks to protect a parasitic wasp, a spider, or an aquatic beetle.  In fact, many people would probably rather let an insect species go extinct than pay to protect it.

This sort of attitude is also reflected in the endangered species lists, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.  These lists rarely include insects and other invertebrates so that the representation of invertebrates does not reflect their abundance and diversity in the natural world.  This is a problem, especially when you start to really think about the necessary services that invertebrates provide, the medical and research advances we’ve made based on invertebrate models (think fruit flies and C. elegans), and their the utility of invertebrates as indicators of ecological health.


Katydid (I think this is the common short winged katydid, Dichopetala brevihastata)

Scientists recognize the value of invertebrates in the environment and are aware of the fact that invertebrates are often neglected when it comes time to conserve species.  Why, then, are there still so underrepresented?  Pedro Cardoso, Terry Erwin, Paulo Borges, and Tim New discussed seven reasons why these problems exist and recommend actions to solve them in their important paper.  Let’s go through each of them!

Problem #1: Invertebrates and the services they provide are not widely known among the public.  It’s hard to convince people that they should allocate funds (or at least support allocation of those funds) for invertebrate conservation when they’re not aware of the diversity of invertebrates or the valuable things they do to keep the world running smoothly.  Even worse, most people come to believe that most invertebrates are either pests or dangerous (neither is true) and fail to understand why anyone would want to prevent their extinction.  Solution: Cardoso et al recommend increasing awareness of invertebrates through media and outreach, a sort of invertebrate PR campaign if you will.  Even simply using common names when communicating with the public might be a step in the right direction.

Banded argiope, Argiope trifasciata

Banded argiope (Argiope trifasciata)

Problem #2: Politicians are largely unaware of the issues surrounding invertebrate conservation.  When our policymakers, the people who will ultimately determine the fate of research finding, are mostly unaware of invertebrate conservation issues, it’s hard to them to justify why invertebrates are important enough to deserve funding.  Solution: Educate the policymakers!  Working toward  better representation of invertebrates on the IUCN Red List and similar lists will also allow people to lobby on behalf of invertebrates to ensure that their conservation becomes a priority.

Problem #3: Basic taxonomic, ecological, and behavioral research is becoming increasingly understudied and underfunded.  It’s hard to determine which species demand our attention for conservation when we don’t even know what their role in the environment actually is.  Basic research helps answer these questions, but is becoming increasingly unpopular and funding for such work continues to decline.  Solution: Citizen science to the rescue!  Amateurs come across new species more often than you’d think and are able to provide useful data on distribution and abundance.  There are more non-scientists than scientists, so why not make use of hundreds of extra eyes and ears to cheaply answer some of the basic questions that are becoming hard to procure funding for?

Blue eyed darner, Rhionaeschna multicolor, flying

Blue eyed darner (Rhionaeschna multicolor)

Problem #4: Most species remain undescribed.  Estimates of the total number of invertebrate species in the world vary widely, but one thing is certain: we have probably only scratched the surface of invertebrate diversity.  According to Cardoso et al, a new invertebrate species is described every 35 minutes, but at that rate it’s going to take another hundred years or more to describe every species.  Just think of how many species might go extinct in that time!  Solution: Careful use of indicator species or surrogate species might be useful in applying conservation efforts to undescribed species.  Increased support for both taxonomic research and the speed of publication of new species descriptions will also help.

Problem #5: We don’t know the distribution of most species.  Describing a species is a start, but to protect it you need to know the extent of its distribution – where it actually lives.  Many species descriptions are based on 3-4 insects from a single location, so we don’t know the range of most species.  Solution: It is important that survey projects such as the Planetary Biodiversity Inventory continue to catalog and document life on Earth so that we know where species are actually located.  Online databases of distribution data such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility will also help decrease the amount of time a researcher or conservationist must search for distribution information.

Problem #6: Changes in abundance over time and space are unknown for most species.  To conserve a species, it’s essential to know where that species is located, when, and how abundant it is.  We don’t, however,  have abundance data for most species.  Solution: By developing standardized sampling protocols, an effective biological inventory of an area can be undertaken by nearly any researcher for whatever purpose, yet provide information that is valuable to conservation efforts and other researchers.  Long term ecological and monitoring projects will also provide valuable information for conservation efforts.

crane fly side view

Crane fly (Tipula sp.)

Problem #7: Life histories and sensitivity to changes in the environment remain unknown for most species.  If we don’t know which ecological services a species requires or provides, it’s hard to develop invertebrate conservation strategies that will actually work.  Solution: Indicator taxa in an area might alert researchers and conservationists to problem within an environment (protect the environment, protect the species within it).  Determining which species make good indicators within an environment is a good way to start conservation efforts in an area.

Cardoso and colleagues identified seven impediments to invertebrate conservation, but they admitted that, in the end, it all boils down to one overarching issue: public perception of invertebrates.  We aren’t going to be able to solve any of Cardoso et al’s list of problems without the support of the public – support for invertebrates, support for science and research, support for conservation.  It is thus vitally important to get the public on board if we’re going to save invertebrate species from extinction.  And why should we save invertebrates?  I think Cardoso and his colleagues sum it up best: “Only by preserving all species and guaranteeing interactions and ecosystem services may we reach the goal of overall biodiversity conservation.”  And, ultimately, what’s best for invertebrates is best for us too.

Literature Cited:

Cardoso, P., Erwin, T., Borges, P., & New, T. (2011). The seven impediments in invertebrate conservation and how to overcome them Biological Conservation, 144 (11), 2647-2655 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2011.07.024


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