40 Percent Of Insect Species Could Go Extinct In Coming Decades, Study Finds05:19
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In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant. (Pat Sullivan/AP)
In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

New numbers compiled by researchers in Australia reveal just how widespread the decline of insect populations around the world has gotten.

Published in the journal Biological Conservation, the study found 40 percent of insect species are now facing extinction over the next few decades, and around 41 percent of all insect species have seen declines over just the last 10 years. Butterflies and moths are among the hardest hit.

"It is alarming, and those are extraordinary projections or predictions or numbers," says Bob Peterson, president of the Entomological Society of America and a professor at Montana State University, who was not involved in the new research. "We're really concerned about the results from not just this study, but several studies and if these results hold ... I think all entomologists and everyone should be concerned about the potential implications here."

What are the factors driving the decline? Peterson tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson that scientists can't make any "bold predictions" at this point. But they are confident that agriculture, land use and climate change are among the primary culprits.

"Without insects, and what they do in our landscapes, in our ecosystems, many of those ecosystems would completely collapse."

Bob Peterson, president of the Entomological Society of America

"One of the big issues with climate change is the developing ... mismatches between plant development and insect development," he says. "So in other words, a plant might be — because of warming trends — might be in the environment and flowering or leafing out. But the insect is not there to feed on the plant or to feed on the caterpillars that are feeding on the plant. And that's creating a lot of concern among entomologists around the world."

Even though insects like bees are critical to maintaining ecosystems, many people in the U.S. focus on them as pests — by devising ways to get rid of them. That can be a challenge for people like Peterson as they attempt to sound the alarm about the scale of the threats insects face.

"The insects aren't as charismatic as other animals," he says. "But what people need to appreciate is two out of every three species on Earth is an insect, and they represent an incredible diversity. Without insects, and what they do in our landscapes, in our ecosystems, many of those ecosystems would completely collapse."

Peterson is calling for fellow scientists to move forward with caution amid these new findings, and conduct further research to shed more light on the scope of the problem globally.

"There's cause for concern, but that cause for concern should marshal more understanding and more studies, more funding for research, so that we know what's happening over long periods of time," he says. "We just don't have a good historical context and references — we don't know what normal is. So we really need to approach this as scientists and be cautious, and methodologically move ahead very carefully."


Ashley Bailey produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on February 12, 2019.

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