The high numbers of insect species and higher taxonomic and ecological categories (guilds) comprise a significant proportion of easily sampled biodiversity, with many easily categorized forms, in terrestrial and freshwater environments. They have attracted considerable attention in attempts to document communities and to measure the impacts of changes, whereby aspects of diversity, species composition, and ecological integrity can be evaluated by using insects as highly informative surrogates or indicators in various ways. A burgeoning literature on these topics reflects movements to conserve entities above single species and emphasizes the growing awareness of the key roles of insects in ecosystems and as "signals" of environmental health. Not all insects are amenable to use in this collective way; they are simply too poorly known. The desirable features of insect groups used as indicators include their high diversity and abundance, being widespread within the target ecosystems; being taxonomically tractable and recognizable (not always to species, and genera or families can be used instead of species in some groups, but it is highly desirable that adequate handbooks and identification keys suitable for use by nonspecialists are available); being easily sampled quantitatively or semiquan-titatively by simple methods; showing demonstrable changes in response to particular sets of disturbances or otherwise being ecologically responsive; and being sufficiently understood biologically that normal fluctuations in abundance, incidence, and distribution are not confounded with disturbance effects. The best documented insect groups have naturally attracted most attention, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the really useful insect groups from those that simply have strong advocates but less proven worth. One constructive approach is to focus on several different taxonomic groups simultaneously and so to incorporate additional ecological breadth.
Another useful approach has been to determine the incidence of "functional groups" among ecologically diverse taxa (such as ants) in which different genera, tribes, or subfamilies coexist but have different trophic habits; respond to different physical, vegetational, or climatic cues; and interact in various ways. Local faunas can thus be characterized in functional terms and changes in balance of the different guilds used to evaluate environmental changes in, often, subtle ways. In freshwater environments, groups such as chironomid flies are diverse and have likewise been used to signal wider effects of pollution or temperature changes. In such contexts, insect indicators are the equivalent of the "miner's canary," with the strong implication that their responses may be sufficiently subtle to indicate environmental changes before the effects are reflected in other changes in biota. On a broader scale, the dependence of some insects on particular microclimates may provide a basis to monitor effects of longer term climate change. Thus, in Britain many insects are on the northernmost fringe of a broader European distribution and are confined to south-facing slopes with high insolation; with change in climate, their distribution may well also change.
Insects also have values as flagship or umbrella taxa, much as with some vertebrates in the past. Selected popular insects can capture public sympathy and are of vital importance in spreading advocacy for insect conservation and the broader values of invertebrates. These need not be indicators, but species adopted as local or broader emblems for conservation have been one of the main imperatives in development of insect conservation through bodies such as the Xerces Society (United States) and the former Joint Committee for Conservation of British Insects (United Kingdom, most recently known as Invertebrate Link). Many leading entomological societies now have sections for members interested in conservation and conservation committees to help serve these wider interests. Even more broadly, characterization of community condition in terms of "representativeness" or "typicalness" or the principle of selecting nature reserves on their values as centers of diversity, evolution, or endemism can all benefit from incorporating insects in such evaluations rather than relying on low-diversity, sometimes atypical, vertebrate assessments alone.
See Also the Following Articles
Biodiversity • Biogeographical Patterns • Greenhouse Gases, Global Warming, and Insects • Endangered Insects • Insect Zoos
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