Do we need to lobby more for invertebrate taxonomy and biodiversity?

Spiders, insects and even more so worms and wormlike invertebrates are often considered ugly and disgusting, at least unappealing, and sometimes even dangerous. Certainly, there is also beautiful invertebrates such as e.g., butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, or some sea slugs, but usually invertebrates appeal little to our understanding of cuteness. Not surprisingly, public attention is more focused on vertebrate species, especially when they either meet the kindchenschema (baby schema) or are considered cute. Both trigger positive affective responses (Nittono et al. 2021). In addition, there is a significant amount of misinformation on invertebrates out there in the world. An example has recently been shown for spiders. In specific, 47% of newspaper articles contained errors and 43% were sensationalist, and that the misinformation on spiders easily spreads through networks and social media (Mammola et al. 2022).

We currently experience a global wave of anthropogenically driven biodiversity loss, and scientists refer to it as the planet’s sixth mass extinction (e.g., Barnosky et al. 2011). Already some years ago, dramatic declines have been reported for insects. Much attention has been given to a study by Hallmann et al. (2017) that reported a decline of more than 75% over 27 years in the biomass of flying insects in protected areas in Germany. Sanchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys (2019) estimated that over 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction. Among the major reasons are habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization. In addition to the declining biodiversity, it is of particular concern that many of the threatened species are still to be discovered. A recent survey (Elven & Søli 2021) concluded that ca 25% of the animal species occurring in Norway are still unknown, the vast majority of them invertebrates. Many species may disappear before they have been discovered. The reported gaps in our taxonomic knowledge are even more problematic given the the shortage of trained taxonomists and curators of scientific collections to fill this need. This issue is referred to as the taxonomic impediment.
There are many reasons for the taxonomic impediment, and a recent multi-author editorial (Engel et al. 2021) states: “Many of the problems of taxonomy stem from the dismissive attitude of the scientific community toward this scientific discipline, its unwillingness to appropriately support taxonomic work, a concomitant elimination of academic positions and a growing suspicion towards fieldwork and specimen collection.” In Norway, the governmental institution Artsdatabanken ( aims among other duties at reducing the taxonomic knowledge gaps. Natural history museums certainly have a particular responsibility to counteract the taxonomic impediment. No doubt, there are various initiatives; many of them aim at developing and improving technical solutions for usage of current taxonomic know-how, but very little in generating funds and positions for taxonomists that can identify and describe species and train the next generation of taxonomists. Again, this is unfortunately especially true for taxonomic knowledge, positions and funding of invertebrates. While globally more researchers work on vertebrates than there are vertebrate species, less researchers work on invertebrate species despite the much larger number of invertebrate species (Glaubrecht 2019). The Natural History Museum Oslo, for example, has over years for ‘practical constraints’ reduced the staff with taxonomic expertise of invertebrates. One of the frequently forwarded ‘practical constraints’ is that natural history museums have to move away from taxonomic research to engage for funding reasons in in research fields without connection to scientific collections. Accordingly, and this is also true for The Natural History Museum Oslo, there is no straightforward strategy on how to cope with the taxonomic impediment while facing dramatic biodiversity loss. Many biologists, therefore, see an immediate need to move the two biggest challenges for taxonomy into center of attention, namely the inadequate funding and the lack of strategic planning, training and recruitment into permanent positions of competent taxonomists (Britz et al. 2020).

A display case with butterflies in the zoological exhibitions of the Natural History Museum Oslo

Given their enormous biodiversity and importance for ecosystem functions, the above mentioned high proportion of misinformation and the challenge of the taxonomic impediment, there is certainly a need for intensified education of the public. Again, natural history museums offer outstanding opportunities for doing so, in particular because they can easily reach young children. Unfortunately, many museums still largely follow with their exhibitions the traditional ideas of cuteness and coolness of the presented animal biodiversity. Sadly, the Natural History Museum Oslo with its current exhibitions is no exception; here we find in its zoological exhibitions little more than a showcase with a superficial overview of invertebrates and ca. 50-year old display cases of beautiful butterflies, essentially without further information on their natural history. We certainly hope that significantly improved new exhibitions will live up to the role of invertebrates and take a step to lobby for their biodiversity.

To conclude, there is certainly a big need, also at the local level of the museums, to lobby for invertebrate taxonomy and biodiversity in order to achieve the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that commits its parties to conserve biological diversity.

Further reading

Barnosky, A. D., Matzke, N., Tomiya, S., Wogan, G.O., Swartz, B., Quental, T.B., Marshall, C., McGuire, J. L., Lindsey, E. L., Maguire, K. C., Mersey, B., Ferrer, E. A. (2011). Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471, 51–57.

Britz, R., Hundsdörfer, A., Fritz, U. (2020). Funding, training, permits—the three big challenges of taxonomy. Megataxa 1, 49‒ 52.

Elven, H. & Søli, G.E.E. (2021). Kunnskapsstatus for artsmangfoldet i Norge 2020. UiO: Naturshistorisk museum, ARTSDATABANKEN.

Engel, M. S., Ceriaco, L. M. P., Daniel, G. M. et al. (2021). The taxonomic impediment: a shortage of taxonomists, not the the lack of technical approaches. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 193, 381-387.

Glaubrecht, M. (2019). Das Ende der Evolution. Bertelsmann. (in German only)

Hallmann, C. A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E. et al. (2017). More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE 12, e0185809.

Mammola, S, Malumbres-Olarte, J., Arabesky, V. et. al. (2022). The global spread of misinformation on spiders. Current Biology 32, R855–R873.

Nittono, H., Lieber-Milo, S., & Dale, J. P. (2021). Cross-Cultural Comparisons of the Cute and Related Concepts in Japan, the United States, and Israel. SAGE Open 11.

Sanchez-Bayo, F. & Wickhuys, K. H. G. (2019). Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. Biological Conservation 232, 8-27.


2 Comments on “Do we need to lobby more for invertebrate taxonomy and biodiversity?

    1. Usually not a good idea to answer with a counter question – but, do we need a flagship species for promoting invertebrate biodiversity? If yes, we certainly should avoid the usual suspects such as e.g., colourful butterflies that again appeal to the general ideas of beauty and cuteness. If we indeed need one flagship species I would advocate for an ‘unknown’ one. Why not a mud dragon, but here I am very biased.

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