Tearing the Fabric of Life on Earth

January 13, 2021


Insect populations are suffering “death by a thousand cuts”, with many falling at “frightening” rates that are “tearing apart the tapestry of life”, according to scientists behind a new volume of studies.

The insects face multiple, overlapping threats including the destruction of wild habitats for farming, urbanisation, pesticides and light pollution. Population collapses have been recorded in places where human activities dominate, such as in Germany, but there is little data from outside Europe and North America and in particular from wild, tropical regions where most insects live.

The scientists are especially concerned that the climate crisis may be causing serious damage in the tropics. But even though much more data is needed, the researchers say enough is already known for urgent action to be taken.

Insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals on Earth, with millions of species and outweighing humans by 17 times. They are essential to the ecosystems that humanity depends upon, pollinating plants, providing food for other creatures and recycling nature’s waste.

The studies show the situation is complex, with some insect populations increasing, such as those whose range is expanding as global heating curbs cold winter temperatures and others recovering from a low level as pollution in water bodies is reduced.

The good news is that the raised profile of insect declines in the past two years has prompted government action in some places, the scientists said, while a “phenomenal’’ number of citizen scientists are helping with the huge challenge of studying these tiny creatures.

The 12 new studies are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Nature is under siege [and] most biologists agree that the world has entered its sixth mass extinction event,” concludes the lead analysis in the package. “Insects are suffering from ‘death by a thousand cuts’ [and] severe insect declines can potentially have global ecological and economic consequences.”

Prof David Wagner of the University of Connecticut in the US, the lead author of the analysis, said the abundance of many insect populations was falling by 1-2% a year, a rate that should not be seen as small: “You’re losing 10-20% of your animals over a single decade and that is just absolutely frightening. You’re tearing apart the tapestry of life.”

Wagner said most of the causes of insect declines were well known. “But there’s one really big unknown and that’s climate change – that’s the one that really scares me the most.” He said increased climate variability could be “driving [insect] extinctions at a rate that we haven’t seen before”.

“Insects are really susceptible to drought because they’re all surface area and no volume,” Wagner said. “Things like dragonflies and damselflies can desiccate to death in an hour with really low humidity.”

One of the studies identifies an increasingly erratic climate as the overarching reason for region-wide losses of moths and other insects in the forests of north-western Costa Rica since 1978. This could be a “harbinger of the broader fate of Earth’s tropical forests”, said Wagner.

However, another study contradicts a 2018 report of a 98% collapse in insects in a Puerto Rican forest. The new paper says “abundances are not generally declining” and that changes in populations are driven by the impacts of hurricanes and not climate change. Brad Lister, who led the 2018 study, said he was unconvinced by the work but would conduct his own analysis of the data used and submit the conclusion to the PNAS editors.


A new study reveals that greater birdbiodiversity brings greater joy to people, according to recent findings from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research. In fact, scientists concluded that conservation is just as important for human well-being as financial security.

The study, published in Ecological Economics, focused on European residents, and determined that happiness correlated with a specific number of bird species. 

“According to our findings, the happiest Europeans are those who can experience numerous different bird species in their daily life, or who live in near-natural surroundings that are home to many species,” says lead author Joel Methorst, a doctoral researcher at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center, the iDiv and the Goethe University in Frankfurt.

The authors calculated that being around fourteen additional bird species provided as much satisfaction as earning an additional $150 a month.

For the study, researchers used data from the 2012 “European Quality of Life Survey” to explore the connection between species diversity around homes, towns and cites, and how it relates to satisfaction. More than 26,000 adults from 26 European countries were surveyed.

According to the study authors, birds are some of the best indicators of biological diversity in any given area because they are usually seen or heard in their environments, especially in urban areas. However, more bird species were found near natural green spaces, forested areas and bodies of water. 

In the U.S., birding has become a more common and accessible hobby during the pandemic.

Although not new, thousands of amateurs and expert birders participate in Audubon’s long-running annual Christmas Bird Count, a three-week activity to count birds in a specific area for the group’s data compilation.

“Nature conservation therefore not only ensures our material basis of life, but it also constitutes an investment in the well-being of us all,” says Methorst.

3 Responses to “Tearing the Fabric of Life on Earth”

  1. redskylite Says:

    We must not take the status quo and/or linear projections for granted either.


    Earth to reach temperature tipping point in next 20 to 30 years, new study finds

    As record-breaking temperatures continue to spread across the globe, this may not continue; the NAU, Woodwell Climate and Waikato researchers have detected a temperature threshold beyond which plant carbon uptake slows and carbon release accelerates.

    http://news.nau.edu/duffy-tipping-point/#.X_93WhbRVPYClimate change: Kiwi-led study finds terrifying tipping point possibly only 20 years away

    “What we have observed from this data is that the amount of carbon dioxide that’s going to be taken up by these ecosystems is going to decline. We’re going to have less time than perhaps we thought to reduce emissions into the atmosphere.”


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