Insect Endangerment

A report by the World Commission on Environment and Development noted, "there is a growing consensus that species are disappearing at rates never before witnessed on the planet" but that "we have no accurate figures on current rates of extinctions, as most of the species vanishing are the least documented, such as insects in tropical forests." Scientists and conservationists agree that insect species are going extinct. But how many have been lost and how many more are at risk remains unclear.

Extinct Insects

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists 72 insects as extinct worldwide. In the United States, the Natural Heritage Program lists 160 insect species either as presumed extinct or as missing and possibly extinct. Many scientists believe that these numbers drastically underestimate actual insect extinction and that many hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of species have gone extinct unnoticed in North America and Europe in the past 2 centuries. The loss in tropical areas has probably been much greater.

For example, the Antioch katydid, Neduba extincta, from California was described in 1977 from preserved specimens collected 40 years earlier. Searches of its sand dune habitat, now largely destroyed, have proved fruitless. The Tobias' caddisfly, Hydropsyche tobiasi, was described in 1977 from specimens collected on the Rhine River in the 1920s. None have been seen since.

In some instances, insects that at one time were very common have disappeared. During the mid-1800s, immense swarms of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, Melanoplus spretus, periodically migrated from the northern Rocky Mountains and destroyed crops throughout the western and central portions of the United States and Canada. However, in the late 1880s this species began a precipitous decline. Some believe that a natural population crash combined with habitat destruction and introduced species led the Rocky Mountain grasshopper to extinction. If a widespread species can vanish because of human activity, the fate of many endemic tropical species must hang in the balance as their only habitat is destroyed.

Endangered Insects

Based on available information we can deduce that a very large number of insects are endangered. The majority of animals on the planet are insects and, if the factors that endanger other animals also affect insects, the number of endangered insects must be very large.

According to the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 163 insects are listed as critically endangered or endangered worldwide. In 1987, West Germany classified 34% of its 10,290 insect and other invertebrate species as threatened or endangered and, in Austria, this figure was 22% of 9694 invertebrate species. More recent figures from 2000 for Great Britain show that 10.8% of its 14,634 described insect species are rare, vulnerable, or endangered. In the United States, both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Natural Heritage Program track endangered species, including insects. The USFWS lists 44 insects as either endangered or threatened, whereas the Natural Heritage Program lists 165 insects as either critically imperiled or imperiled.

Are these figures on endangered insect species realistic? Because we lack an enormous amount of information on the taxonomy, life history, and distribution of insects and because endangered species documentation is biased in favor of vertebrates, we certainly are underestimating the number of at-risk insect species. To illustrate, only 7 and 4% of the endangered animal species listed by the IUCN and USFWS, respectively, are insects, yet insects make up more than 72% of global animal diversity. Of all the vertebrates described in the United States, 17.9% are listed as threatened or endangered. If we assume that insects and vertebrates face similar destructive forces at similar levels of intensity, then one should expect to find on the order of 29,000 at-risk insects in the United States alone. Although this assumption oversimplifies the situation, it shows that the 44 insects listed as endangered and threatened by USFWS are a significant underestimate. The Natural Heritage Program may be closer to the mark for select groups of insects for which we have more information. It estimates that 43% of stoneflies, 19% of tiger beetles and butterflies, and 17% of dragonflies and damselflies are critically imperiled or imperiled in the United States. In addition, according to the IUCN Red Book of Swallowtails, 10% of swallowtail butterflies are considered threatened. Swallowtails are the only group of insects to have been assessed worldwide.

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