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More than 75 percent of insect species are not currently protected

Insects make up the majority of animal species across the globe. More than 80 percent of all animals are insects and yet, of the estimated 5.5 million insect species, only 8 percent appear in the list of assessed species for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This indicates that insects are overlooked, despite the fact that they pollinate the majority of plants and provide food for humans and countless predators, such as birds and bats. In fact, insects are crucial for ecosystem functioning but we don’t much consider them when planning conservation programs. 

A new study by scientists from the University of Queensland, the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, has set out to quantify the extent to which current protected areas (PAs) actually protect insect species. Insects are in decline worldwide and are urgently in need of protection. Protected areas can safeguard threatened species, but only if these threatened species actually occur within the areas that are protected. 

“It’s high time we considered insects in conservation assessments,” said lead author Shawan Chowdhury, a conservation biologist at iDiv. “Countries must include insects in protected area planning and when managing the existing ones.”

Insect populations are threatened by human activities, including agriculture, climate change, urbanization, habitat loss, and habitat degradation, and their numbers are declining worldwide. Protected areas are generally effective in safeguarding habitats from loss and destruction, thereby enhancing the survival rates of species that occur within the boundaries. Although protected areas are known to actively shield many vertebrate species from key anthropogenic threats, the extent to which this is true for insects remains largely unknown. 

To determine what proportion of insect species are safeguarded by protected areas, Chowdhury and colleagues overlaid species distribution data, obtained from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, with global maps of protected areas. They have published their findings in the journal One Earth.

The researchers found that 76 percent of global insect species are inadequately represented in protected areas, including several critically endangered insects such as the dinosaur ant, crimson Hawaiian damselfly, and harnessed tiger moth. Furthermore, the global distributions of 1,876 species from 225 families (around two percent) do not overlap with protected areas at all.

The authors were surprised by the extent of underrepresentation. “A lot of insect data come from protected areas, so we thought that the proportion of species covered by protected areas would be higher,” said Chowdhury. “The shortfall is also much more severe than a similar analysis that was conducted on vertebrate species, which found that 57 percent of 25,380 vertebrate species were inadequately covered.” 

Species with low PA coverage occur predominantly in North America, Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, and Australasia. In contrast, relatively large proportions of insect species achieve adequate protection status in Amazonia, Saharo-Arabia, Western Australia, the Neotropics, the Afrotropics, and Central Europe.

The researchers found it challenging to locate data on insect distributions during their study because, historically, insects have been overlooked in conservation programs. “Of the estimated 5.5 million insect species globally, we could only model the distributions of 89,151 species,” explained Chowdhury. Data on the remaining millions of species is too scarce or non-existent. 

Even if insects live within protected areas, they may not be reaping the benefits of this “protection,” said Chowdhury. “Many insect species are declining within protected areas because of threats such as rapid environmental change, loss of corridors, and roads inside protected areas.”

“A number of steps can be taken to efficiently conserve insects, and participation from all sorts of people is essential. Citizen science could have an enormous impact in filling the data gap on insect distributions. Scientists and policy makers must now step up and help with this challenge of identifying sites of importance for insect conservation.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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