Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers

post by RyanCarey · 2019-07-04T19:06:17.041Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · EA · GW · 8 comments

This is a link post for https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320718313636#f0010

Abstract: "Here, we present a comprehensive review of 73 historical reports of insect declines from across the globe, and systematically assess the underlying drivers..."
...From our compilation of published scientific reports, we estimate the current proportion of insect species in decline (41%) to be twice as high as that of vertebrates, and the pace of local species extinction (10%) eight times higher, confirming previous findings (Dirzo et al., 2014). At present, about a third of all insect species are threatened with extinction in the countries studied (Table 1). Moreover, every year about 1% of all insect species are added to the list, with such biodiversity declines resulting in an annual 2.5% loss of biomass worldwide (Fig. 2)..."

For those concerned about wild animals, such a quick rate of decline could give some reassurance (in addition to the theoretical arguments) that wild insect populations will be small in the long-run. We could have more confidence in the extent of decline if we had a better handle on any publication bias in published papers on conservation and insect populations.

Edit: Note the following comment from below from Gavin Taylor, describing the biased methodology used:

> Good point. I was commenting more on my perception of the conservation field rather than considering biases in the methodology of this study, but they keywords used were:
[insect*] AND [declin*] AND [survey]

Which [is] completely biased to finding studies showing insect declines.

8 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by gavintaylor · 2019-07-05T20:28:44.503Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I think you're confusing species extinction with changes in total insect population, when the two aren't necessarily linked. Most of the time that article is talking about the percentage of species in decline (although in some cases % is used to refer change in population), but if those species are not particularly numerous to start with, this may not affect total population levels much. The report also lists several situations where insect abundance is increasing:

A comparison of historical records of 74 butterflies in Finland showed how 60% of grassland species declined over the past 50 years, whereas 86% of generalist species and 56% of those living at forest edge ecotones increased in abundance.

So I don't think this article provides strong evidence about any change in wild insect populations, just that biodiversity will be reduced.

comment by RyanCarey · 2019-07-06T00:19:11.234Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Perhaps you missed the key quotation from my post (emphasized below):

...From our compilation of published scientific reports, we estimate the current proportion of insect species in decline (41%) to be twice as high as that of vertebrates, and the pace of local species extinction (10%) eight times higher, confirming previous findings (Dirzo et al., 2014). At present, about a third of all insect species are threatened with extinction in the countries studied (Table 1). Moreover, every year about 1% of all insect species are added to the list, with such biodiversity declines resulting in an annual 2.5% loss of biomass worldwide (Fig. 2)..."

Is the 2.5% estimate inaccurate?

comment by gavintaylor · 2019-07-06T14:42:19.127Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I did overlook addressing the change in biomass value in my original comment but I now see this was the focus of your post. The species in decline % was more striking and the point the authors of the article emphasised. I have now checked the article again to make sure I understand this point.

Unfortunately the article is not particularly clear about the methods it used to get that value, but it the median 2.5% annual rate of biomass loss indicated in Fig. 2 comes from 5 studies measuring biomass loss in specific locations (the introduction lists Germany flying: -2.8% p.a., Puerto Rico: ground foraging -2.7% p.a., canopy dwelling -2.2% p.a., not sure what the other two data points are. They list UK Carabid beetles at -1.05% p.a. but don't include this in the figure).

My interpretation is that 2.5% should be taken to indicate the annual loss of biomass in habitats where many species are in extinction/decline. So although the authors don't state it explicitly, it seems they intend this to represent the gross decline in biomass attributable to species extinction/decline. Yet this should be offset by gains in biomass from habitats where species are increasing in abundance to reach a % for net change. And while the authors don't seem very optimistic about this:

Even if some declining insects might be replaced with others, it is difficult to envision how a net drop in overall insect biomass could be countered

Still, I think the 2.5% loss would be a 'worst-case' scenario. All in all, this value is based on very limited data and I think it should be interpreted cautiously. If more data was available to calculate a net change in insect biomass, I expect this would be much closer to 0%.

Reading this paper carefully actually left me feeling quite skeptical about how species population monitoring is conducted and reported. While I'm not an ecologist or conservationist and may be missing something, it seems there is a strong bias to studying insect groups that are declining vs. those that becoming more abundant (some are mentioned in the text, often generalist species). So the conclusions have to be pessimistic if all the studies you have to review focus on monitoring species with the highest risk of extinction.

comment by mike_mclaren · 2019-07-08T12:01:45.032Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Reading this paper carefully actually left me feeling quite skeptical about how species population monitoring is conducted and reported. ... So the conclusions have to be pessimistic if all the studies you have to review focus on monitoring species with the highest risk of extinction.

I haven't read the paper, but did listen to a More or Less episode about the paper. The episode discusses the poor quality of the available data and left me feeling similarly. The radio episode also highlights a potential bias in search strategy used by the authors in their meta-analysis that would favor finding an overall population decline. If I recall correctly, it was something along the lines of the authors searching with keywords related to "declining populations", so they would naturally tend to be including papers that found declines and excluding papers that found population increases. This idea squares with your interpretation that the -2.5% number shouldn't be interpreted as a projection for total insect biomass or numbers.

comment by gavintaylor · 2019-07-08T13:59:04.502Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Good point. I was commenting more on my perception of the conservation field rather than considering biases in the methodology of this study, but they keywords used were:

[insect*] AND [declin*] AND [survey]

Which does is completely biased to finding studies showing insect declines. Fig 1. also shows that most of the included studies were done in the US and Europe, with very little data coming from the tropics where most insect diversity is.

comment by SebK · 2019-07-05T12:33:25.897Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW
For those concerned about wild animals, such a quick rate of decline could give some reassurance (in addition to the theoretical arguments) that wild insect populations will be small in the long-run.

For those of us more active in other cause areas, could you clarify what you mean by this? Are you coming from an anti-natalist angle here, and is that the prevalent position in the wild animal community? What are the additional "theoretical arguments" for expecting small insect populations?

comment by RyanCarey · 2019-07-05T13:38:05.672Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

What I mean is that working on wild animal welfare is less important if there are few animals, for any axiology..

Other theoretical arguments for expecting small insect populations: (i) in the long-run future most life would be on other planets, or in extreme cases, in simulations, where there would be little reason to bring insects, (ii) in the very long-run, there's little reason to think creating insects is the optimal way for people to use limited resources to fulfill their own preferences.

comment by gavintaylor · 2019-07-05T21:07:30.761Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Not sure I agree with point i. If people are terraforming planets then introducing insects (or something like them) would be quite reasonable for both ascetic and ecological reasons. And simulations are likely to first be run on simpler brains (soon we will be able to simulate a nematode!), so many simpler animals may be simulated before we get to the point of simulating the first people.