#StevesLibrary: Extraordinary Insects
If there is one thing that I have come to appreciate even more this year, it is insects. I’ve always have a soft spot for them, as they are pretty much everywhere and come in an array of colours and shapes. I’m sure I’ve said it before but I’ve spent many an hour staring down a microscope at insects, for various projects. That’s all well and good but sorting ethanol preserved specimens into their various taxonomic groups isn’t the same as seeing the animals in the wild. It’s difficult to imagine their majesty in life, when you have a lifeless facsimile in front of you. Thankfully a number of authors such as Dave Goulson have helped fight their corner with insightful books, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is another ally of insects.
The one misconception that most people have when they think of our planet is that humankind rules supreme. However, insects are the true owners of that title. If we were to disappear overnight, most of life on Earth wouldn’t bat an eyelid. If they were to disappear, things would be slightly more chaotic as ecosystems collapse. Insects evolved over 400 million years ago, for comparison Homo sapiens (our species) is only about 200,000 years old. Insects have survived five mass extinctions that caused catastrophic loss of life and it’s likely they will still be chirping and flying when our species meets it’s end. They are also a champion of numbers, there are more than 200 million insects for every human on the planet and so far, over half off known multicellular organisms are insects.
So what is the key to their success? They have a couple of aces up their sleeves but the first of these if their fecundity. Sverdrup-Thygeson points out in Extraordinary Insects that if two fruit flies mated, producing equal numbers of males and females, which in turn produced equal numbers of males and females (and so on), at the end of a year the twenty-fifth generation, you could form a sphere whose diameter would be greater than the distance between the earth and the sun. That’s just a handful of fruit flies eh? Of course with this amount of turnover, there is a lot of potential here for natural selection to work. On these much shorter timescales than our own, evolution can act extremely quickly and produce new species or populations in the blink of an eye.
Sverdrup-Thygeson’s passion and enthusiasm for insects is very evident. Throughout Extraordinary Insects Sverdrup-Thygeson champions insects and helps to reveal their hidden world. This is vitally important as they are unfortunately facing drastic declines globally, as you can imagine they don’t exactly command the same amount of conservation funding as pandas or elephants. Insects are far more complex than most imagine, with detailed social hierarchies, parental care and important processes for humankind. It is time we stopped viewing them as pests and more as a group of species to be valued.
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