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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19 thoughts on “Science Sunday: Impediments to Invertebrate Conservation

  1. Great post. From my experience, #5 is a headache when it comes to identifying what’s out there. I live in an area (the Adirondacks) which has a … spotty … record of which species are found here. It’s very good when it comes to the vertebrates or trees, but starts getting problematic once you get away from that. On more than one occasion, I’ve had the experience of “well, it’s should be there!” response when I explain that no, I’ve never seen it, or the opposite.

    • True! On the other had, doesn’t it feel really great to find a species in an area where you know it should be, but haven’t ever seen it? I get a thrill out of that as it makes me realize just how well I know my stuff!

      • Well, sometimes it’s just annoying, when you’re trying to figure out what you’re looking at, and after a great deal of searching you realize that according to the guides, what you’re seeing wasn’t ever reported in the area. Either that, or I have a long argument with someone who – having looked at some guide – will insist that X should be there, and no, it isn’t. As in: Yes, I know what they are, I don’t care what the books say, they’re not here.

        • I can see how either would be annoying. I’m sure you know that field guides often take a lot of liberties with their range information, adding connections between sites that sometimes aren’t substantiated in real life. And things are starting to move around too! It’s going to be interesting to see where things end up and how that compares to the historic ranges on record.

  2. All very true. Have you read Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy? He does a good job of showing ways that plant chewing insects can be saved by planting the native plants they feed on. Very good book.

    • Which is ironic, because in the old days they used to argue in favor of non-native plants because fewer insects would chew on them! We used to have Nature Improvement Societies, that met to discuss how nature could be fixed, both by getting rid of undesirable native species and introducing non-native species in the hopes that they would flourish. A bunch of ignoramuses with total certainty that they knew enough to just do whatever they wanted.

      Fun fact: Pigeons and Starlings were introduced to the US by one of these Improvement societies. Because it was a tragedy that the US didn’t have all the birds Shakespeare talked about. Feeling improved yet?

      • A lot of my current work involves looking for various invasive species. Quite a few of them, particularly the plants, were introduced because they were ornamental or useful – garlic mustard, for example. One of the “head banging” moments came when I found out why there were so many Japanese honeysuckles around, as we were trying to remove them. Turned out the state had planted them back in the ’70’s to “provide feed for wildlife.”

        One of the funny stories came when I was surveying one of the local campgrounds. The staff told me about their former “crazy treehugger” park ranger, who would kill any earthworm she saw. They said “she said they don’t belong!” I said “well, she was right, they don’t.” Of course, killing them one by one was worthless, but she was right about them not being native.

        • You know, people used to come to Arizona because there were very few plants here that caused allergies. The combination of low pollen (most of the year at least) and the dry air were supposed to be good for allergy sufferers. But then they started bringing their ornamentals with them to make it “feel more like home.” Nevermind that getting AWAY from home was the whole goal… Now Arizona’s a terrible place for allergy sufferers to be because we’ve got random things blooming nearly year-round and there are SO many types of pollen. Kinda sad really.

          I supposed I should admit that I kill any crayfish I come across in Arizona as we don’t have native species and they are nasty little buggers to have in our aquatic systems. I know it doesn’t do any good, like the park ranger killing her worms, but it makes me feel better!

      • Ah yes, the Improvement Societies! Those were… well, problematic to say the least. Of course, honey bees were also brought over to the US and now we have a massive agricultural machine that depends heavily on a non-native insect. Perhaps not the best plan in retrospect, but I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    • I think there are a lot of people who are trying to change that, but it doesn’t always work to promote a long-term appreciation for insects and other invertebrates. In the massive school district that takes up most of my city, every second grader does an insect module for several weeks, learning about insect life cycles and how they contribute to the environment. Most second graders I’ve encountered during outreach events LOVE insects! They think they are the absolute coolest things and will eagerly scoop up any insect I bring for them to handle/ Most 6th+ graders I’ve encountered HATE insect though. Some even gasp and hold their hearts or yell out if I get an insect anywhere near them. So, somewhere along the line they’re losing that love and appreciation for insects and replacing it with fear and disgust. I’d really love to do a study sometime (or persuade someone else to do it actually!) to figure out what happens, what influences these kids respond to that make them switch so sharply in only a few years. I have a feeling that parental attitudes toward insects are largely to blame, but I’m sure there are other factors at work too.

  3. Perfectly said, I hestitated to even mention schools as the teacher for this…Parents are wonderful teachers and can do this just as well if they wanted to. I am learning some things myself at your site!!

    • It would be nice if schools would start to get involved in promoting invertebrate diversity, but I’m not convinced that’s going to happen right away and let me tell you why. For most of the outreach programs I’ve done in elementary schools, I’ve done presentations in more than one class. Typically, one teacher, the one who organized the visit, is VERY excited about having someone come to talk to her/his class about bugs. That teacher will usually hold the bugs if the kids ask for it and the kids are usually excited to have me there. The other teachers are often much less excited about having bugs in their classroom and their kids are more fearful. Even though many of the classrooms I’ve visited have been doing their 2nd grade insect unit (thus the interest in having an entomologist talk to the class in the first place), a LOT of the teachers are clearly very uncomfortable with having the insects, even the harmless little mealworms, silk moth caterpillars, and milkweed bugs that they use for their insect unit, in their classrooms. These teachers make it abundantly clear that they have no interest in handling the bugs when their kids ask them to and talk about how gross the insects are or how scared they are of the bugs in front of the kids. Sort of drives me nuts when I’m there to try to get the kids interested in and excited about bugs, trying to teach them that most insects aren’t dangerous, and the teacher is telling them the exact opposite. After all, who are the kids really going to listen to, some stranger that talks to their class for an hour or the teacher they’ve trusted all year?

      Same deal with a lot of parents. When I helped teach an insect-based science outreach program a year ago, we occasionally got parents who came on the field trip to the university with their kids, a field trip where they KNEW their kids were going to be interacting with and learning about insects, and still freaked out around the bugs. Sometimes they wouldn’t let their kids hold the hissing cockroaches or play in the box of dirt with the decomposers with all their friends. Always made me wonder why they bothered coming at all! And guess which people are going to grow up to hate insects? Those kids, the ones who were actually prevented from having a safe and educational experience. I get why parents do this, I really do. I’m terrified of snakes and I know firsthand that I am incredibly uncomfortable having a snake in my house. But, if I end up having kids and they really like snakes, I’m darned well going to let them have one! I personally don’t think it should be up to me to dictate to my kids what their interests, fears, and hatreds are going to be without even giving them a chance to find out for themselves. But that’s just me – and I of course also don’t have a right to tell other parents how to raise their kids. It just makes me sad that some parents impose their own fears on their kids without even thinking about how it will impact their attitudes later in life.

      This is something I feel rather strongly about. Can you tell? :)

  4. I can tell!! And the passion for what you are doing is infectioius. Eventually more will be won over although the dynamics of the same frustration will continue. But it sounds like there is a children’s book or other form of media just waiting to happen with your skills and love for what you are doing. Just wonderful!

    • Well, that’s nice to hear! I always worry that I’m pushing people away by getting so worked up over this sort of thing. Very pleased to know at least one person agrees with me! And funny you should mention writing a children’s book – definitely on my life list of goals to accomplish. I think it would be so fun!

  5. Pingback: The Sunday Roundup 3 | Splendor Awaits

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