As biologist J. B. S. Haldane noted more than 60 years ago, "The creator must have an inordinate fondness for beetles." The more than 300,000 species of beetle to which Haldane referred are representative of the great diversity of insects. Measured by the number of formally described species, insects are by far the most diverse group of organisms on Earth. More than 950,000 species of insects have been described, comprising 72% of the total identified animal species on Earth.
Even more remarkable are the estimates of how many insects we have not cataloged. Most insect species that have been classified and named to date are from temperate zones, but tropical habitats harbor far more. Smithsonian Institution entomologist Terry Erwin has suggested that as many as 30 million insect species may exist based on extrapolations from the number of beetles found in particular tropical tree species. The most conservative estimates suggest that 5 to 8 million insect species have not been discovered. This number contrasts sharply with the 5,000 to 10,000 species of vertebrates that may await discovery and description around the world.
The sheer number and mass of insects reflect their enormous ecological impact. The world's ecosystems depend upon insects for pollination, decomposition, soil aeration, and nutrient and energy cycling. As Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson wrote, "So important are insects and other land dwelling arthropods, that if all were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months."
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