June 14, 2024

The least visible families of insects are the most species-rich

Biodiversity is declining all over the world due to human intervention and climate change. Addressing this requires accurate information about the animals that populate the planet. But apparently little attention is paid to the most species-rich and important groups of animals. The researchers discovered that only 20 families of insects make up half the species diversity of all flying insects. The richest in species are the inconspicuous and little-studied midges.

According to estimates, only 20 percent of all animal species have been discovered so far. The remaining 80 percent are dark varieties. But when it comes to discovering new species and studying familiar ones, science seems to focus on individual “favorites” rather than those animals that contribute most to the world’s biodiversity. For example, at the Information Portal on Global Biodiversity, two-thirds of the datasets concern birds, although these only make up 0.2 percent of all species.

The number of flying insects

Researchers led by Amrita Srivathsan of the Leibniz Institute for Evolutionary Research and Biodiversity in Berlin have now turned their attention to a prominent group of animals hitherto neglected: insects. “It is very important to learn more about insects, since all insects together make up many times the biomass and species diversity of all vertebrates. They are essential for survival,” explains co-author Rudolf Meyer of the Museum for Naturekunde Berlin. To find out which species of flying insects Particularly rich in species, the team collected samples from five biogeographic regions, eight countries and many habitats.

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Insects were caught by researchers with the help of so-called malaise traps. These are tent-like structures made of fine nets, in which flying insects get lost and are finally directed to a container of ethanol. High resistance alcohol kills them and preserves them. In this way, Srivatsan and her colleagues were able to catch more than 225,000 flying insects in different locations. Using modern genetic sequencing, they were able to read the “DNA barcodes” of more than 25,000 species from 458 families. The team then determined which of these families make up the most species-rich group of flying insects.

The most important insect families have hardly been explored

The result: Just 20 insect species are responsible for 50 percent of the global species diversity of flying insects. Ten of these families belong to the order Diptera, which includes mosquitoes and flies, among others. “This is really remarkable considering that the samples were collected across different climatic zones and habitat types, including tropical rain forests, mountain forests, savannas, mangroves and swamps, as well as grasslands in temperate zones,” according to the scientists’ report. They explain the global dominance of the Top 20 by their high adaptability, which opens up different areas for each habitat.

But although the 20 most species-rich insect families are extremely important to the world’s ecosystems, this is not reflected in the scientific interest in them. “We found that the more a family contributes to insect communities around the world, the more it is neglected,” Srivatsan and her colleagues said. As a prime example, they cite the species-rich family of midges, which, despite its global dominance, has so far received little taxonomic interest. So the research team is pushing to look at the 20 most diverse insect families to give them top global priority. This is the only way to develop truly effective measures against biodiversity loss.

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Source: Natural History Museum, Leibniz Institute for Evolutionary Research and Biodiversity; Specialized Article: Ecology and Evolution, doi: 10.1038/s41559-023-02066-0