76 percent of well-known insects fall outside protected areas

The borders of many conservation sites barely overlap with species’ ranges

An orange and gray Australian painted lady sitting atop a bright magenta flower.

Protected areas can provide safe havens for insect species, including the Australian painted lady (Vanessa kershawi, shown). But many existing ones fall short, a new study finds.

S. Chowdhury

The existing boundaries of national parks and other habitat preserves aren’t enough to protect more than three-quarters of the world’s well-studied insects.

The finding, reported February 1 in One Earth, shows that people who design nature preserves “don’t really think about insects that much,” says coauthor Shawan Chowdhury, an ecologist at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig.

That’s a problem because insect populations around the globe are plummeting, a growing body of research suggests, probably due to climate change and human development (SN: 4/26/22). For instance, insect abundance in Puerto Rico has dropped by up to 98 percent over the last 35 years. 

Threats to insect survival could have ripple effects on plants and other animals. Insects help form the foundation for many ecosystems: They pollinate around 80 percent of all plant species and serve as a staple in the diets of hundreds of thousands of animals (and the occasional carnivorous plant).

One way to avert insect extinctions is to set aside the land they need to survive. But scientists know the ranges for only about 100,000 of the estimated 5.5 million insect species. To determine how well existing protected areas may be aiding insect conservation, Chowdhury and colleagues mapped the known habitats of about 89,000 of those species and compared the ranges with the boundaries of preserves from the World Database on Protected Areas.

Overall, these spaces don’t safeguard enough habitat for 67,384 insect species — about 76 percent of the species included in the study — the team found. Roughly 2 percent of species do not overlap with protected areas at all.

Conserving insects, Chowdhury says, will mean setting aside more insect-friendly spaces in the years ahead.

About Freda Kreier

Freda Kreier was a fall 2021 intern at Science News. She holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from Colorado College and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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