[permaculture] Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’ | Environment | The Guardian

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Wed Jan 16 22:55:51 EST 2019


https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/15/insect-collapse-we-are-destroying-our-life-support-systems?CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco

Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’
Insects <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/insects>

Scientist Brad Lister returned to Puerto Rican rainforest after 35 years to
find 98% of ground insects had vanished

Damian Carrington <https://www.theguardian.com/profile/damiancarrington>
Environment editor
@dpcarrington <https://twitter.com/dpcarrington>

Tue 15 Jan 2019 01.00 EST Last modified on Tue 15 Jan 2019 01.02 EST

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[image: El Yunque national forest in Sierra de Luquillo, Puerto Rico]
<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/15/insect-collapse-we-are-destroying-our-life-support-systems?CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco#img-1>
El
Yunque national forest in Sierra de Luquillo, Puerto Rico. Photograph:
Stuart Westmorland/Corbis/Getty Images

“We knew that something was amiss in the first couple days,” said Brad
Lister. “We were driving into the forest and at the same time both Andres
and I said: ‘Where are all the birds?’ There was nothing.”

His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to
reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided
plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had
collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had
vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming.

“It was just astonishing,” Lister said. “Before, both the sticky ground
plates and canopy plates would be covered with insects. You’d be there for
hours picking them off the plates at night. But now the plates would come
down after 12 hours in the tropical forest with a couple of lonely insects
trapped or none at all.”

“It was a true collapse of the insect populations in that rainforest,” he
said. “We began to realise this is terrible – a very, very disturbing
result.”
[image: The El Yunque national forest]
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The El Yunque national forest. Photograph: Alisha Bube/Getty Images

Earth’s bugs outweigh humans 17 times over
<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study>
and are such a fundamental foundation of the food chain that scientists say
a crash in insect numbers risks “ecological Armageddon
<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers>”.
When Lister’s study was published in October
<https://www.pnas.org/content/115/44/E10397>, one expert called the
findings “hyper-alarming”.
Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds
Read more

The Puerto Rico work is one of just a handful of studies assessing this
vital issue, but those that do exist are deeply worrying. Flying insect
numbers in Germany’s natural reserves have plunged 75% in just 25 years
<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers>.
The virtual disappearance of birds in an Australian eucalyptus forest
<https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1472-4642.2009.00578.x>
was blamed on a lack of insects caused by drought and heat. Lister and his
colleague Andrés García also found that insect numbers in a dry forest in
Mexico had fallen 80% since the 1980s.

“We are essentially destroying the very life support systems that allow us
to sustain our existence on the planet, along with all the other life on
the planet,” Lister said. “It is just horrifying to watch us decimate the
natural world like this.”

It was not insects that drew Lister to the Luquillo rainforest for the
first time in the mid-1970s. “I was interested in competition among the
anoles lizards,” he said. “They’re the most diverse group of vertebrates in
the world and even by that time had become a paradigm for ecology and
evolutionary studies.”
[image: La Mina river cascades over rocks in El Yunque national forest]
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La Mina river in El Yunque national forest. Photograph: Raul
Touzon/NG/Getty Images

The forest immediately captivated Lister, a lecturer at Rensselaer
Polytechnic University in the US. “It was and still is the most beautiful
forest I have ever been in. It’s almost enchanted. There’s the lush verdant
forest and cascading waterfalls, and along the roadsides there are carpets
of multicoloured flowers. It’s a phantasmagoric landscape.”

It was important to measure insect numbers, as these are the lizards’ main
food, but at the time he thought nothing more of it. Returning to the
national park decades later, however, the difference was startling.

“One of the things I noticed in the forest was a lack of butterflies,” he
said. “They used to be all along the roadside, especially after the rain
stopped, hundreds upon hundreds of them. But we couldn’t see one butterfly.”

Since Lister’s first visits to Luquillo, other scientists had predicted
that tropical insects, having evolved in a very stable climate, would be
much more sensitive to climate warming. “If you go a little bit past the
thermal optimum for tropical insects, their fitness just plummets,” he said.

As the data came in, the predictions were confirmed in startling fashion.
“The number of hot spells, temperatures above 29C, have increased
tremendously,” he said. “It went from zero in the 1970s up to something
like 44% of the days.” Factors important elsewhere in the world, such as
destruction of habitat and pesticide use, could not explain the plummeting
insect populations in Luquillo, which has long been a protected area.

Data on other animals that feed on bugs backed up the findings. “The frogs
and birds had also declined simultaneously by about 50% to 65%,” Lister
said. The population of one dazzling green bird that eats almost nothing
but insects, the Puerto Rican tody, dropped by 90%.
[image: A Puerto Rican tody]
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A Puerto Rican tody. Photograph: W arissen/Getty Images

Lister calls these impacts a “bottom-up trophic cascade”, in which the
knock-on effects of the insect collapse surge up through the food chain.

“I don’t think most people have a systems view of the natural world,” he
said. “But it’s all connected and when the invertebrates are declining the
entire food web is going to suffer and degrade. It is a system-wide effect.”

To understand the global scale of an insect collapse that has so far only
been glimpsed, Lister says, there is an urgent need for much more research
in many more habitats. “More data, that is my mantra,” he said.

The problem is that there were very few studies of insect numbers in past
decades to serve as a baseline, but Lister is undeterred: “There’s no time
like the present to start asking what’s going on.”


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