Widespread extinctions and rapidly diminishing populations are probably what comes to mind when most of us think about the nature of biodiversity change in the 21st century.
This is not surprising. The influence of modern humans on the planet is vast. The growing demand for food, timber, and fuel increasingly erodes and degrades once pristine habitats. Decades of greenhouse gas emissions are causing global temperatures to steadily rise. Catastrophic weather events that used to be once-in-a-generation are becoming the new norm. The magnitude and rate of these changes have even led some scientists to propose a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
It is only to be expected that these accelerating impacts will be mirrored by plunging biodiversity trends. Some have estimated that species are being lost at more than one hundred times the natural rate. We may even be in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event.
But despite all this, the response of wildlife to human pressures is by no means universally negative.
This blog post is based on the introduction of an article I penned in September 2018for Atropos, an excellent magazine for British Lepidoptera and Odonata enthusiasts. It was published in issue 62 (2018).
Very hungry caterpillars
A caterpillar munching on a leaf is probably what comes to mind when most people picture the early life stages of butterflies and moths. But if Eric Carle’s classic is to be believed, caterpillars have a much more varied palette. It is certainly true that many species shun the conventional diet of leafy greens, even if lepidopterans that enjoy a diet of chocolate cake and Swiss cheese are confined to children’s storybooks.
Chimney Sweeper, Maiden’s Blush, Peach Blossom. British moths have some fantastic English names. There’s also the Drinker, the Conformist, the Sprawler, the Phoenix, and the Saxon.
Such enchanting names are at the root of the ever-growing popularity of moth trapping. They capture our imagination and stick in our minds. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by creatures with names like Brindled Beauty, Plumed Prominent, Feathered Footman, or Marbled Minor?
But not all are blessed with a common name. The majority of British Lepidoptera are known only by their scientific denomination. Many of these don’t exactly roll off the tongue (try Schrekensteinia festaliella or Ptycholomoides aeriferanus). Some are even longer than the insect itself. So why do so many species lack an English name? Is this something we should rush to rectify?
Serendipity plays a pretty important role in scientific advances. It was involved in the discovery of penicillin, microwaves and x-rays. And now, it seems a bunch of old moth scales can be added to that list.
Scientists drilling cores from lake sediments in Germany – hoping to learn about past ecosystems from ancient pollen grains – recently stumbled across a profusion of tiny scales from moth wings. This is significant as the sediments are a whopping 200 million years old, making it the earliest appearance of moths and butterflies in the fossil record.