Conservation Without Charisma: Envisioning a Future with More Bug Love

Brie dedicated her PhD research to studying Ontario’s freshwater crayfish. Credit: WCS Canada/ Brie Edwards.

By Dr. Brie Edwards
September 21, 2016

Looks matter when it comes to wildlife conservation. People want to save the whales, but not the crickets. Insects are often right down at the bottom of our collective list of priorities, well below the charismatic species like elephants and panda bears, and even below less charismatic groups, like minnows, toads, and snakes.

There’s nothing wrong with conserving the things people do love or care about. In fact, there are ways conservation programs can be built around our wild celebrities to benefit their less popular supporting actors. But that only goes so far. Forgotten and unloved, the decline of insects and other invertebrates around the world may be the most alarming aspect of biodiversity loss that nobody’s really watching.

The small sizes and generally inconspicuous presence of invertebrates belies their incredible ecological importance. Invertebrates hold a very important place in food webs, acting as a critical link to transfer the energy contained at the bottom of the food chain up to higher organisms.

Budding entomologist examines his first dragonfly nymph specimen. Credit: WCS Canada/Brie Edwards

Birds, fish, amphibians and even some mammals (like bats) can rely exclusively on invertebrate food sources. Reliance on bugs doesn’t stop at wildlife. Invertebrates perform many services that are a direct benefit to humanity, such as pollinating our crops, recycling our agricultural wastes, and supporting our recreational fisheries.

I’ve loved slimy, squirmy, scuttling creatures for as long as I can remember. I’ve never been afraid of things that lurk unseen in the shadows, under foot, or below the waves. Soft or scaly, furry or finned, four legs or eight (or none!), it makes no difference to me. I have no delusions: my outlook is rare, strange even, outside of my professional sphere. But it seems to me that the massive and global bias against conservation research focused on invertebrates should be cause for some alarm, and not only for bug-lovers like me.

It was during my undergraduate studies that I realized I could turn my natural interest in watching for stealthy underwater critters into something useful. I was majoring in Environmental Sciences and my program included co-operative education placements. My first post was working in an Ontario Ministry of the Environment [and Climate Change] water chemistry lab at the Dorset Environmental Science Centre.

I spent my summer indoors running tests on water samples from lakes and streams spread across the province. I quickly learned that water quality assessment was only part of the picture, and that the field researchers dropping water samples at our door for analysis were primarily tasked with making an additional biological assessment of freshwater health based on underwater bugs.

The next summer I joined the bio-monitoring team out in the field and I’ve been professionally seeking invertebrates ever since. The first outreach initiative I was ever involved in as a conservation “bug-ologist” was at the Peterborough Children’s Water Festival. We brought our nets and chest waders and sampled a section of the river right beside the event, so we could teach kids all about the things they never knew were hiding below the surface, and the ways that bugs can help us diagnose the river’s health.

Dragonflies spend a single summer as an aerial predator (left), after spending several years as aquatic nymphs (right). Credit: WCS Canada / Brie Edwards.

The kids couldn’t get enough. They were thrilled to see our array of grimy critters with bulging eyes and twitching antennae. They couldn’t wait to scoop a net into a murky pail to see what the next mystery creature might be, and most were more than happy to hold what they found and show it off to their friends, teachers and parents.

Most of the parents and teachers, on the other hand, were either visibly bored with the discoveries or down-right disgusted. People over the age of 18 tended to keep a generous distance between themselves and our station, shocked by the sheer number of creepy crawlers they’d unknowingly shared their favorite swimming holes with over the years. I found it particularly interesting to watch the grown-ups try to reconcile their beloved and beautiful cottage dragonflies with the squirming spiny nymphs in our trays.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why I can still look at bugs and other less aesthetically pleasing wildlife with “kid glasses”. Maybe it was because I had a unique level of exposure to nature, growing up with a cottage in an intact and wild place, where I was free to make my own discoveries in the mud and weeds, without the potentially stifling influence of negative adult impressions.

Or, perhaps it was that I could see first-hand how our water bugs were connected to things that people care about. I watched older family members spend hours fishing with bait that mimicked the crayfish and mayflies their trophy fish were ravenous for, watched them fuss over the adorable furry otters teaching their babies to crack open clams for their supper, and heard them thanking the dragonflies as they swooped down to make a meal of the deer flies circling above their heads.

Cicadas spend an astounding 13–17 years underground and only a few weeks as an adult, calling from the treetops for a mate. Credit: WCS Canada / Brie Edwards.

Maybe if we find ways of reminding adults about the benefits that bugs provide wildlife and humans alike, they might rediscover an earlier appreciation for these less charismatic actors, and protect and even celebrate the love and fascination children naturally have for things that squirm and scuttle behind the scenes.

I’ve brought my love of bugs into my work with WCS Canada’s freshwater program, and am investigating ways that freshwater bugs might provide new approaches to predict how changes in climate and land use such as mining and dams can combine to impact the health of lakes and streams in Ontario’s Far North.

In collaboration with a few other bug-loving conservation partners, we hope that keeping an eye on bugs in these far-away places might give us early warning signals in areas where adverse ecological changes might be on the horizon. It is my hope that by developing a bug’s eye approach for investigating these ecological issues, there will be more opportunities for invertebrates and other unloved creatures to share the conservation stage.

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Dr. Brie Edwards is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with WCS Canada.This commentary originally appeared at the WCS Canada Muddy Boots blog.

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