What we’re reading: Vanishing insects, grass ‘austerity’

Jeweled flower mantis in Prey Lang, Cambodia

Jeweled flower mantis in Prey Lang, Cambodia. (© Jeremy Holden)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world.

1. Vanishing act: Why insects are declining and why it matters

The story: Yale Environment 360 reported on the dramatic decline of the world’s insect populations, citing a 2014 study that listed the leading factors of global decline as “habitat destruction, deforestation, fragmentation, urbanization, and agricultural conversion.” There has been a 45 percent decline of invertebrates over the past 40 years, including pollinator species like bees. In fact, “pollinating insects improve or stabilize the yield of three-quarters of all crop types globally — one-third of global crop production by volume.”

What’s next: Researchers are calling for intensive monitoring efforts to fully grasp the situation. For Jürgen Deckert, insect custodian at the Berlin Natural History Museum, the ability to address the large-scale agricultural issues many see as the cause of global insect decline boils down to this: “The key question is whether governments view biodiversity as an add-on or as something that is of existential importance for our future.”

 Read more here.

2. Drought triggers ‘austerity’ root system in grass crops

The story: It turns out it’s not just economies that can undergo austerity measures: A BBC News report highlights a recent study that show root systems of grass species —widely used for human and animal food and renewable biofuels — suppress themselves during drought. Since roots provide access to much-needed water, shutting down root growth might seem counterintuitive during a drought, but Jose Dinney, lead author of the study, explains: “[T]his response allows the plant to slow the extraction of water from soil and bank these reserves for the future; sort of like the plant version of economic austerity.”

What’s next: The grass family includes several key crops for consumption, such as rice, wheat and barley. Previously, little was known about how drought conditions and water availability affected this particular root system. The results of this study could have greater implications for global agriculture — particularly for those trying to improve crop yields in drought-prone areas.

Read more here.

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3. The space station is becoming a spy satellite for wildlife

The story: To track the migratory patterns of many of the world’s species, scientists and engineers have created increasingly smaller tracking devices. The Atlantic reports this month on the ICARUS Initiative (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) — a new tracking device that will be linked to a dedicated receiver on the International Space Station — that is tinier and more powerful than them all. Each lightweight radio tag can be fitted to even the smallest of animals, and is outfitted with a solar panel, GPS and substantial memory to measure and transmit information. “It will be the best ever possible sensing network of life on the planet,” said Wiselski.

What’s next: Researchers are eager to get started using the tags, which will be able to map species in real-time. Soon, teams will begin tagging and tracking a selection of birds, bats, sea turtles and other species, and the data will be uploaded to MoveBank, a free online database for animal tracking studies. Wiselski thinks ICARUS has promise as a wildlife trafficking deterrent, whereby prominent targets like elephants are “publicly” tagged so that poachers know their prey is being tracked via satellite.

Read more here.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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