For my first proper post, I thought I’d start on something memorable. A post on a group of animals that have wowed millions in their array of diversity, that have inspired naturalists since humanity decided wildlife was good for something other than eating, and if we lost them we too would be doomed to extinction…
Yep, I’m talking about the wonderful world of invertebrates.
Yet for all their worth, the array of arthropods, molluscs, annelids and the like that populate our planet, they slip under the radar much of the time due to the human perception of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s a world we don’t really see or understand, and emotive nature finds few ways to relate to them in the same way we do to big, ‘sexy’ mammalian species such as tigers, orangutans and whales: you would never find a global, celebrity-backed conservation campaign entitled ‘Save the Partula Snail’ or ‘Fregate Island Beetle Time Now’.
Which is understandable, for those flagship species are undoubtedly awesome and their popularity is a key to finding the way to preserve them for years to come. And there are certainly some inverts that are very handy at grabbing the public’s attention due to our own definitions of a ‘beautiful’ animal. Butterflies instantly come to mind, with appreciation of their beauty thankfully turning from pinning specimens to a board for a ‘stamp collection’ to managing habitat such as chalk downland largely for the benefit of rare species of butterfly. They are probably the most photogenic of the arthropods too, as the photo to the right shows: I was lying in a Cornish field for about half an hour snapping shots of these obliging common blues (much to the bemusement of passers by) this Summer. Dragon & damselflies are another group that could be classed as ‘romantic’ insects, the sight of them buzzing along a peaceful brook in a sunny spring afternoon bringing in more deserving public respect.
But from here on in, the picture goes a bit more fuzzy for respect of our backbone-less friends. Things start to become either boring, scary, irritating, disgusting, dangerous, pests and any other combination of these terms to most people. Which is of course a great shame, as like every animal on this planet they are fascinating in their own individual way and all deserve to be here. At this year’s WildlifeXpo, Chris Packham gave an example of this sentiment towards bugs at it’s most typical: A woman wanted his advice on how to kill off some ants that crawled through a hole in her window, where they would proceed to march across her kitchen in search of the sugar in her larder. The answer would be to simply block the hole in the window.
Yet killing is always an irrational instinct when it comes to dealing with mini beasts, when in nearly all situations like these the solution is often far simpler. If there’s a mosquito in your room, just let it fly out of the window and let it fulfill it’s role in the ecosystem! If it’s to be killed, let it be done by something that needs it, such as a spider.
What most people often don’t understand is that the world of bugs is just as exciting as the Serengeti, just in miniature with viewing from your hands and knees rather than a truck or jeep. One of my favourite wildlife encounters this year occurred whilst I was on my way through my local wood one evening on one of my excursions to watch the local barn owls. As I moved up a short slope, my eyes just happened to catch a patch of ground illuminated by my torch, which revealed a huge Violet ground beetle trying to prize a small slug, it’s preferred prey, from a stick. It was a life and death battle as dramatic as any lion wrestling a zebra, and for five minutes I’m not afraid to admit that I was engrossed in watching the beetle cause the slug to lose it’s grip slowly but surely, until it was a slimy dinner for the assassin in antennae. I almost forgot about the barn owls I came out to see!
And if you think the violet ground beetle is an efficient predator, you should see the incredible Tailless whip scorpions. How can you not fall in love with that? They’re just as amazing as tigers and polar bears in my book.
Thankfully though, bugs aren’t totally ignored by conservation awareness schemes, and in the UK the general public can currently take part in OPAL’s Species Quest survey, focusing on collecting data for six rare and often unnoticed species of invertebrate found in Britain: the Two-spot ladybird, Devil’s coach horse, Small tortoiseshell, Tree bumblebee, Green shieldbug and Leopard Slug. So if you’ve seen one or more of any of these, please report your sightings; if not, keep an eye out! Look through logs or shake tree branches if you want to (though if you feel very strongly about your dignity you may not want to do these in public!), as this is more likely to gather the goods. I myself found two leopard slugs in a rotten woodpile blooming with fungi (slug paradise), and one of those beauties can be seen in my photo below.
So don’t squirm the next time you see a snail, or reach for a newspaper when a wasp gets stuck in the dining room. Remember the crucial role invertebrates have in maintaining our environment near the bottom of the food chain, breaking down nutrients in the soil for plants and providing food for the whole animal kingdom from the bottom of the food chain. Without them our biosphere would fall to pieces, so they’re incredibly worthy of our protection in an increasingly shrinking natural world.
Oh, and just to prove insects can be as beautiful as any tiger or songbird, here’s one of my favourite clips from the BBC’s Madagascar series.