Forget the whales—Save the earthworms!

Whales, polar bears and tigers are the common and recognisable mascots against climate change, but they aren’t the only animals we need to be thinking about when considering the ecological future of our planet, writes Amelia Theodorakis.

While humans have always had strong connections to animals—anthropomorphisation, and whatnot—it’s the little ones we should be watching out for.

I’m talking about insects: all manner of creepies, crawlies and wrigglies that usually escape our attention, except for the occasional swat, splat or stamp when they get too close for comfort. Most of us don’t realise that the precious balance of our planet’s ecosystem is all tied up in these little buggers. Perhaps it is because we generally perceive insects as devoid of feelings like pain and self-awareness, that we fail to attribute any kind of significance to them.

The truth is that invertebrates (insects, worms, spiders and some hard-shelled crustaceans) make up 90 to 95 percent of all living organisms on Earth. They are paramount to the existence of humans. I call them the housekeepers of the Earth.

Jessica Hellmann, a biologist at the University of Notre Dame in the U.S. says insects “carry diseases, they pollinate and they have economic impacts on crops and timber.” What this means is that insects are responsible for all the ecosystem processes. They change the nature of their—and our—environments by consuming decaying matter and cycling nutrients, pollinating plants, spreading seeds and keeping populations of potentially harmful organisms in check.

When earthworms burrow into soil to break down leaves, grass and food scraps, they increase the amount of air and water. This allows the carbon dioxide to be expelled and increases the nutrient content of the soil, which is absorbed by other plants.

While seeing the Humpback whale fade into extinction would be a tragedy, watching the last bee drop dead would be an environmental disaster. Professor of social ecology at Yale University Dr. Stephen Kellert believes that out of all animals, invertebrates are being hit the hardest by climate change. As natural areas like forests are devastated by humans, the increasing number of invertebrates destroyed is becoming a “catastrophic loss”. Kellert is concerned that not enough people seem to understand the impact on human well-being this loss will have.

One small things like butterflies emerging ahead of time is actually a pretty big deal…”

Climate change affects different insects in different ways throughout their life stages, so it’s hard for scientists to arrive at enough solid answers to really know how to protect our invertebrates. What they do know is that climate change is interrupting the natural processes of insects’ lives in multiple ways.

Insects are unable to control their body temperatures, so they’re particularly sensitive to climate change. Scientists believe that some insects may be able to adapt to new conditions, or move to cooler environments. But there will be those that become trapped in environments that can no longer support them and become extinct, or lose genetically important parts of their species.

Global warming is causing some plant species to die

out, and this is bad news for insect groups like sessile feeders (organisms, like sea sponges, that stay in one place to feed), who rely on certain kinds of vegetation to survive. They will either perish or move on to eating other kinds of plants, potentially taking a food-source away from another animal.

A UK study has found that butterflies are hatching earlier as spring comes around sooner each year. The study, conducted under the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, shows that since 1976 spring has started arriving 6-11 days earlier each decade because of global warming.

Since the whole organic world is cyclical, one small thing like butterflies emerging ahead of time is actually a pretty big deal. The impact of this change matters for animal and plant species that rely on each other for food. If butterflies are hatching earlier this means the cycle loses pace because the butterflies will not be in time with the plants their young caterpillars depend on for food. In turn, birds rely on insects, like caterpillars, to feed their young. If the cycle isn’t in synch then there may not be enough caterpillars to feed all those baby birds.

…like a snail trying to slide from a salt shower, climate change is going to catch up with insects”

Scientists are trying to come up with ways to help the little earth-dwellers. Managed Relocation—the process of transferring insects to places less affected by climate change—is a way of protecting particular species; think about the butterfly house at the zoo. This program is controversial among scientists though, as Hellmann explains, because the risk of this model is that relocated species may end up overpopulating their new habitats and cause the extinction of other local species.

One good thing about insects’ short life spans is they produce many generations of their species in short periods of time. This may mean they can adapt to the Earth’s changing climate, thus ensuring the endurance of their species, for a while at least. But evolution or no evolution, like a snail trying to slide away from a salt shower, the rapid pace of climate change is surely going to catch up with insects sooner or later.

So basically climate change is threatening the existence of insects, and insects play a massive part in the regeneration of plant-life. Plants and trees produce oxygen, which is vital for the existence of all living creatures. Humans breathe oxygen but we are the ones responsible for the rapid growth of climate change.

Do you see what I’m getting at here?

If we’re not careful, in the end climate change will get us all.

It suddenly all feels pretty hopeless, right? So what can you do? If you’re science-minded you can jump on some sort of science-based development program bandwagon. If you’re just a simple discerning civilian who has no idea about ecological matters, and you didn’t realise what you were getting yourself into when you committed to writing an article about it, there are a few easy things you can do from home.

  1. Grow a vegie garden to promote organic growth and plant regeneration. Producing your own fruit, veg and herbs is the most sustainable thing humans can do for the planet (and their finances).
  2. Feed that garden by composting your kitchen scraps instead of sending them to landfill. Give the earthworms something to do.
  3. Do all the usual environmentally responsible things: recycling, tree planting for your local council, conserving water, stop using household chemicals.

The little things we all do today can make a big difference to all the little (and big) things in the world trying to get on with their important lives.

Disclaimer: We really should save the whales and stop the shark culls too.

By Amelia Theodorakis

Image via Flickr

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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