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Technology offers new hope for declining insect populations

Recent concerns about significant declines in insect populations have intensified the demand for comprehensive data on their status worldwide.

Insects, despite their ubiquity and diversity, have remained a mystery in many ways, primarily due to the sheer difficulty of distinguishing between the myriad species.

“So far, such data are only available for a few insect groups and for selected regions. To improve on the status quo, we need urgent assessments of all types of insects in all parts of the world,” explained Roel van Klink, a senior researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv).

Technology to monitor insect populations

A series of technological innovations are significantly enhancing the ways researchers study and monitor insects. Various methods are employed to track and identify these creatures more effectively and efficiently.

For example, inexpensive devices can now capture the unique sounds of many insect species, enabling scientists to identify them by their audio signatures. Additionally, lighting techniques are used to attract insects, which can then be photographed and identified from the images captured.

More advanced methods include the use of radar and lasers to remotely detect and classify insects based on their size and wingbeats.

Another innovative approach involves analyzing environmental DNA samples extracted from media such as water or air, allowing researchers to identify insect species through their genetic sequences.

“These novel methods have enormous potential to close the vast data gaps we have for insects. They can provide us with new, more, and better data at lower costs, partly due to the semi- or fully autonomous nature of the data collection. Additionally, these new technologies typically avoid harming insects,” explained Professor Toke Thomas Høye of Aarhus University, Denmark.

Reducing reliance on experts

One of the most significant benefits of these new methods is their ability to reduce dependence on the limited number of experts who can distinguish between different insects.

Traditionally, these specialists are overwhelmed by the volume of work, but now, they can delegate routine identification tasks to computers. This shift allows the experts to concentrate on more complex and critical scientific inquiries.

“Most importantly, the new methods reduce our dependence on experts, since the people who can tell insects apart are few and overburdened with work,” stated Høye.

Technology to identify insect populations

The challenge of understanding insect populations is enormous; an estimated 80% of insect species are still unidentified by science.

Using traditional methods to characterize these species could span over a thousand years. However, there’s a growing momentum in efforts to better identify and understand these populations.

Tomas Roslin, professor of Insect Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, is optimistic about the potential of artificial intelligence and computer-based methods to accelerate research.

“Now, computer-based methods and artificial intelligence can massively speed up the task of describing life on Earth. By teaching computers how to separate insects, we can make sense of billions of images, millions of sound recordings, and trillions of DNA sequences,” said Professor Roslin.

This rapid progress of technology is vital for enhancing our understanding of the diverse insect populations around the globe.

A unified approach to monitoring insect populations

The integration of these diverse technological advances offers unprecedented opportunities for comprehensive surveys of insect populations, as detailed in a special issue led by researchers like Dr. Silke Bauer from the Swiss Federal Research Institute.

“Together, these technical advances will revolutionize our knowledge about insects. They make surveys of all types of insects feasible. While they have so far been developed in isolation from each other, our special issue marks the beginning of their integration. By combining them, we will gain unprecedented insights into insect populations across the world.”

Dr. Bauer also emphasized the importance of ensuring that these technologies and the data they produce are accessible globally, to promote both global insights and equality.

This wave of technological innovation has the potential to completely transform our understanding of the insect realm, offering new tools for scientists racing to preserve these vital components of ecological systems worldwide.

The study is published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.


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