Insects play critical roles in nearly every ecosystem — they pollinate more than 80% of plants and are an important food source for thousands of vertebrate species — but insect populations are collapsing worldwide and they continue to be overlooked by conservation efforts. Protected areas can protect threatened species, but only if those threatened species actually live in the areas we protect. A new study to be published in the journal Feb. 1 one earth found that 76% of insect species are not adequately covered by protected areas.
“It is high time to include insects in conservation assessments,” says lead author Shawan Chowdhury, conservation biologist at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv). “Countries need to include insects in protected area planning and management of existing ones.”
Although protected areas are known to actively protect many vertebrate species from anthropogenic threats, the extent to which this applies to insects remains largely unknown. To determine what proportion of insect species are protected by protected areas, Chowdhury and colleagues overlaid species distribution data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility with global maps of protected areas.
They found that 76% of global insect species are underrepresented in protected areas, including several endangered insects such as the dinosaur ant, the purple Hawaiian damsel and the jagged tiger moth. In addition, the global ranges of 1,876 species from 225 families do not overlap with protected areas at all.
The authors were surprised at the level of underrepresentation. “A lot of insect data comes from protected areas, so we thought the proportion of species covered by protected areas would be higher,” says Chowdhury. who found that 57% of 25,380 vertebrate species were under-covered.”
In some regions, insects were better protected than in others. Relatively high proportions of insect species achieved adequate protection in Amazonia, Saharan Arabia, Western Australia, the Neotropics, the Afrotropics, and Central Europe, but protection remained inadequate for many species in North America, Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, and Australasia.
Insects have historically been overlooked by conservation programs, and this research has been limited by the lack of data on insect distribution. “Of the estimated 5.5 million insect species worldwide, we were only able to model the distribution of 89,151 species,” says Chowdhury. “More than 80% of all animals are insects, but insects represent only 8% of assessed species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.”
Even if insects live in protected areas, they may not benefit from this “protection,” says Chowdhury. “Many insect species are declining in protected areas due to threats such as rapid environmental change, loss of corridors and roads in protected areas.”
“A number of steps can be taken to efficiently conserve insects, and the involvement of all types of people is essential,” says Chowdhury. “Citizen Science could have a tremendous impact in filling the data gap on insect distribution. Scientists and policymakers need to take action now to help with this challenge of identifying sites important for insect conservation.”