In Defense of Crawlies

AS the North American spring unfolds, the region's insect hordes are reappearing. They need a friend. So do their fellow invertebrates throughout the world.

Invertebrates account for more than 90 percent of the planet's animal species. Some 20,000 insect species disappear annually as tropical jungles shrink and other habitat is lost.

But that says nothing of the unheralded losses of spiders, worms, and other spineless creatures. Yale University social ecologist Stephen Kellert finds that even conservationists give them relatively little attention. Ignorance of invertebrates and a widely held human aversion to ``creepy crawlies'' numb awareness of a major environmental problem.

While some invertebrates are pesky or dangerous to humans, most just quietly carry out their biological roles. Along with bacteria and fungi, invertebrates break down plant and animal waste as part of the biosphere's recycling process. They provide important links in many food chains and help make habitats habitable for other forms of life.

Without this activity, waste would pile up and ecosystems crumble. In fact, Earth won't be able to support humans if we lose key members of the invertebrate corps. Given present ignorance, ecologists can't judge how likely such an ultimate disaster might be. However, invertebrates are disappearing - largely because they are losing their habitats.

Even bulldozers don't deserve all the blame. Conservation measures taken to preserve wildlife habitat for other animal types and plants may make those habitats unsuitable for some of the resident invertebrates.

Conservationists and public officials concerned with saving endangered species don't have to worry about hypothetical disasters to feel a sense of urgency. The ignorance about invertebrates' needs, which undermines the management of habitat conservationists want to preserve, should get their attention. That is reason enough to give invertebrates a higher priority than they now enjoy on the environmental agenda.

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