Invertebrates: High diversity but low on conservation agenda
by Nipu Kumar Das
Well, we are aware of the extinction of megafaunal species like Dinosaur, Dodo, Woolly mammoth, and so on. However, if asked about the extinction of invertebrates like snails, ants or spiders, we might frown the brows in doubt! You will be surprised to know that mollusc (the soft-bodied organisms such as snails, slugs, clams, etc.) has the highest rate of extinction that comprises of approximately 39.12% total animal species that have disappeared since 1700 AD. Likewise, Insects alone witnessed 6% of the total animal extinction (IUCN Red list 2020).
A Tarrantula (Theraphosidae) spider
Photo: Udayan Borthakur
The loss of charismatic animals such as mammals and birds, amphibians and reptiles, has been documented and prominently featured in the popular media. The limelight of conservation is always on the larger vertebrates. Efforts by India’s National Tiger Conservation Authorities groundbreaking work on Indian tigers; Government efforts in conservation of species like One-horned Rhino, Pygmy Hog etc.; non-governmental organizations (NGO) like Aaranyak’s effort towards the community-based protection and conservation work on Greater Adjutant Stork in Assam, Dakshin Foundation’s work on Sea Turtle conservation, etc., are commendable. Recent literature estimated that vertebrates have received more attention in conservation related research across terrestrial, freshwater, and marine habitats . On the contrary, invertebrates receive very less attention globally and attract a disproportionately minor research effort (funding and interest), although they are comprising of nearly 99% of animal diversity . This kind of bias in conservation research has direct consequences on funding, scientific study, and policymaking and thus conservation.
Invertebrate plays a significant role in our ecosystem. They are a food source for many vertebrates in the food chain and are also known to be important ecological indicators, thus helping in understanding of environmental health. Pollination service is one of the major roles provided by bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, and moths. Unfortunately, according to Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United States (FAO) 2020, about 40% of invertebrate pollinator species (particularly bees and butterflies) are facing extinction at the global scale. Thus, there are many such roles played by invertebrates which go unnoticed.
India is home for almost 9.64% of total animal diversity in the world[3,4]. The Indian government had implemented an act, namely, Wildlife Protection Act (1972) to protect India’s rich diverse wild fauna and flora species. This act includes six schedules which give varying degrees of protection to wild species. However, only a tiny fraction of threatened invertebrate species have been included in this act, and the remaining data deficient invertebrates are still far to be included here due to lack of assessment. The threats such as habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, climate change and so on are causing innumerable extinction as compared to megafauna which goes unnoticed. Unfortunately, we are unaware of the exact nature of species loss and many invertebrates might have already been extinct or on the verge of extinction. Though, in the last decade, taxonomists (who classify and identify organisms) are engaged with various interesting species discovery and revision using the currently available knowledge. Yet, the majority of described species are not evaluated and they fall under the Data Deficient category on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
In recent times, Citizen scientists are playing a significant role in documenting our biodiversity. It is a newly emerged scientific method applied in conservation science research, and uses crowd-sourced data and online databases, which offer ease of accessibility and knowledge-sharing opportunities. Nationwide, some commendable citizen science efforts are carried out to catalogue India's rich biodiversity. Some of them involve exclusively invertebrates, namely Butterflies of India (www.ifoundbutterflies.org/), Moths of India (www.mothsofindia.org), Cicadas of India (www.indiancicadas.org), Odonata of India (www.indianodonata.org), etc. India Biodiversity Portal (www.indiabiodiversity.org) is also another online repository of India’s biodiversity. One can submit their observations here directly in the form of photographs with additional information like locality, geocoordinates, ecology and so on. This, in turn, gives opportunity for the specialists or taxonomists to easily assess and collate data in a short amount of time and helps in species identification, cataloguing, understanding population trends, geographic ranges, ecology, and map species distributions. Citizen science approach also assists in conservation of the rare, threatened species and their habitats.
The organizations such as Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), etc. are devoted their research for biodiversity science, focusing on invertebrates. In the year 2018, Dept. of Biotechnology, Govt. of India, funded a project on Bioresources and Sustainable Livelihoods in Northeast India that has been started to strengthen both science and sustainable development in Northeast India. This project is jointly co-ordinated by ATREE and Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD) in partnership with 12 other institutions of Northeast India. (http://nebiores.atree.org/about). It also aims to document invertebrates like ants, beetle, mollusc, cicadas, and bees along with various plant groups across Northeast states.
Besides, Indian govt has announced a new mission, named ‘National Biodiversity Mission’, under the aegis of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The major objectives of this mission are to document, catalogue, and map India’s rich biodiversity among many others. (http://psa.gov.in/pmstiac-mssions/national-biodiversity-mission). These efforts will undeniably contribute towards documenting and understanding the vast diversity of Northeast India.
The pristine landscape for terrestrial habitation in Mizoram
Photo: Nipu Kumar Das
Research efforts focused on conservation will ensure in improving our knowledge of threatened organisms, particularly less-studied invertebrates. If somehow, the research gap between both vertebrates and invertebrates can be narrowed down, then it will facilitate more effective conservation policies to minimize biodiversity loss. Following are some of the aspects we can work on to protect and conserve the understudied invertebrates – (1) encouraging conservation education among local communities, (2) conservation action planning with local inhabitants involvement, (3) popularizing eco-tourism with special focus on invertebrates, (4) strict implementation of laws, (5) strong support and willingness of government and political parties, (6) promoting conservation-related research with good funding etc. are some of the key elements for conservation of understudied invertebrates .
Some molluscs of northeast India
Photo: Rejoice Gassah
Greater funding opportunity and need for capacity building in invertebrate biology will only go long way in conservation of this imperilled. The establishment of protected areas with a special focus on protecting invertebrates can also be done. Priority should be given in conserving critical habitats for invertebrate conservation, such as caves, mangrove forests, etc. Overall, there should be an integrative approach/framework to understand the lesser-studied invertebrates and conserve them accordingly.
The author would like to thank NA Aravind Madhyastha (Associate Professor, ATREE), Anirban Roy (PhD candidate, ATREE) and Nabasmita Malakar (PhD candidate, ATREE) for their valuable comments in preparation of the article.
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About the Author:
Nipu Kumar Das is a Junior Research Fellow and PhD candidate in Suri Sehgal Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, ATREE Bengaluru. He works in the field of Malacology, focusing on Systematics and Biogeography of Indian land molluscs.