Dr. Solodovnikov explains to us the importance of studying insect biodiversity through systematic entomology – the evolutionary classification of insects – for man to have a less biased view of what he calls our “planet of insects”.
A study last year showed a 25% decrease in insect numbers, others have suggested insects might disappear within a century. Are you worried
In general, I am more concerned about people than about insects because I think insects will survive. But people are destroying our ecosystems. So that’s more problematic for us.
The studies of insect decline and the PR part of it are generally good because they draw attention to insects and alert conservationists.
However, if experts take a closer look at how this has been measured, it may not be a long-term decline. It could be a local decline. It’s more complex. We can’t simplify the pattern (and) say, “Now, 100 years from now, the trend is for all insects to go away.”
What concerns you most
We hardly have any part of the planet that is intact. Many species, while not completely extinct, are sinking or disappearing from certain local ecosystems.
The main driving force behind insect species extinction is habitat destruction. Such big deforestation, big landscape changes can basically ruin the full range of certain species. If the mountain range is cut down somewhere in the tropical forest, some locally endemic species could live here (see above) that all of these species will disappear.
Mammals or birds, if they are extinct, are better noticed. However, larger animals often have larger areas of distribution. Insects have very small micro-habitats – (it can be) tens of square miles and that’s it.
Why is insect loss important?
Most insects, when not flying around, are hidden in cryptic habitats such as soil surface, foliage, and forest canopy. So we don’t see them. But because there are so many species and so many, they are extremely important in the biosphere because they are involved in the food chains, decompose organic matter (like many dung beetles), pollinate plants, to name but a few.
What do you do as a systematic entomologist?
We are the first biologists to encounter an unknown variety of insects, and we taxonomically describe species and classify them in a systematic order that allows other scientists to navigate that variety.
(We study) phylogeny – or the tree of evolution – because a good modern biological classification should be based on the tree of life, then it tells us about many things.
Why is that important?
First, it’s part of basic research. And when we know more about larger animals or mammals like us (than we do about insects) then we have a biased view of nature or a biased view of the world.
So we need to shift our prejudices to something less remarkable to us, but more remarkable to nature itself, and balance the scientific view of the world.
To give you a very simple example, when we have a new (vector-borne) disease or a new vector for a disease, we move on to systematic entomology. We run to the library and try to find a book on this group of insects and identify the species that caused the problem.
But this book on mosquitoes (for example) was written not because we have a vector-borne disease, but because someone was interested in the variety of mosquitoes and studied them for the sake of general knowledge.
So it could be very helpful in a future pandemic.
I agree. Imagine a future disease that will be transmitted by insects, some new species that we as broadcasters were not yet aware of. Then we need basic knowledge to quickly identify the species and come up with a solution, because if we spend time exploring the group, studying diversity and biology, it would cost us additional years.
Entomologists have described more than 1 million species of insects and it could be as many as 10 million. Why didn’t we classify more?
There are many factors. And one of them is that there are so many insects. It’s a big job.
We need a lot more resources. There are not yet enough resources or social interest for systematic entomology.
On the other hand, there could be better approaches. If we use more genomic technologies and digitization approaches to collections, we could accelerate this. However, current experiments also show that these advanced technological approaches also require resources and time.
“You can follow the evolution of continental drift, the evolution of the climate, by following the evolution of ground beetles.”
Dr. Alexey Solodovnikov, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
You have helped train new researchers in the field BIG4 Project that ended in 2018. How will that help?
There are so many insects and they are so important, especially these four large groups (beetles, bees, ants and wasps, flies and mosquitoes, butterflies and moths). And we have so few experts. The main goal was to train a cohort of early stage researchers who are experts in modern approaches.
We had a network of projects. We have improved phylogenetic knowledge for several groups. There was one study that used machine learning, computer vision, to identify species. Another project developed protocols on how ancient DNA (from museum samples) can be extracted and used effectively. Genomics has a lot of power in our research.
They focus on ground beetles, of which there are a few 47,000 described species and are one of the largest families of living organisms. Why are you personally interested in them?
They are not the prettiest or the most spectacular of beetles. It’s not an “Oh wow!” Effect or something.
I love the challenges they pose for me as a scientist – unsolved questions and lots of exciting puzzles or interesting patterns that I discover while studying.
What key questions are you trying to answer with ground beetles?
First of all, they’re very old – one of the oldest lines of beetles. We know this from the fossil record hundreds of millions of years ago. Many (insect) groups died out along the way. But ground beetles survived because of their perfect adaptation. And they’re still a pretty dominant, evolutionarily successful group. What makes you so successful?
The evolutionary line arises somewhere and then evolves and expands. Because there are so many species, they are in so many habitats. They’re on every piece of ground we could grab. When aliens come to earth with their spaceship, land and have an hour to try what they see on earth, there is a very high probability that they will catch a few ground beetles.
You can follow the evolution of the continental drift, the evolution of the climate, by following the evolution of ground beetles. Many ground beetles are preserved in Baltic amber and are good representatives for the reconstruction of past climates.
The ground beetles have amazing biologies. Amblyopinini from South America developed mutual relationships with (small and medium-sized placental) mammals. They hunt the parasites in the skin of mammals and mammals developed tolerance to them. You don’t care for them. It’s a very rare phenomenon. Usually they (the relationships) are antagonistic.
Can you tell us more about ground beetles than previous climate proxies?
Reconstruction of past climates in general – this is a big scientific problem.
Different species of beetles are specific for certain temperatures and humidity (in habitats such as steppes, deserts, tropical or temperate forests). In this way you can reconstruct the environment based on the species composition, as each species has certain requirements in terms of temperature, humidity and duration of the different seasons.
Just as we do for modern fauna, we could reconstruct the conditions of the past. For example, Baltic amber is formed in Europe. In it we find species that are tropical or subtropical. These species do not occur in Europe. The climate has changed significantly. In the Baltic amber from the Eocene (56 to 33.9 million years ago) we find a species composition that today corresponds to the subtropics and tropics of Southeast Asia.
Can studying these beetles today also help combat climate change?
It’s probably more difficult. What we can do by examining ground beetles and other insects is changing the monitor. We can see changes on a fine scale as ground beetles and insects react quickly to changing conditions – a particular species would lose numbers or withdraw from a particular area.
If we have a good monitoring system and compare this data with climate data over the longer term, we could conclude: “Ok, if we notice a change in the insects, this means a certain change in the climate.” So we can project these trends and see what lies ahead.
Is surveillance something you are working on?
Currently not. We (Entomologists at the University of Copenhagen) are moving towards it. We are actually trying to implement that here in Denmark. We are currently speaking with the Aage V Jensen Foundation to start a long term monitoring program.
How can systematic entomology help us protect insect biodiversity?
It provides the basic knowledge framework. It does not give us immediate solutions to protect some species, but it does allow us to find such solutions.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you enjoyed this article, you can share it on social media too.