Researcher: time to conserve the North’s insects


Dr Oberprieler inspects a tray of invertebrates

Dr Oberprieler inspects a tray of invertebrates

A Charles Darwin University PhD graduate has discovered hundreds of insects in Northern Australia that are new to science – prompting her call for insects to be included in wildlife surveys undertaken for conservation planning.

Dr Stefanie Oberprieler said insects were the backbone of biodiversity, comprising about 80 per cent of animal species and playing crucial roles in the health and stability of the wider environment, but were often overlooked in wildlife surveys.

Dr Oberprieler’s thesis focused on native ants, beetles, flies and spiders throughout Northern Australia, largely in Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks.

“This region is a seriously understudied hot spot,” Dr Oberprieler said.

She said her research recorded hundreds of insects and spiders, with more than 75 per cent undescribed or new to science.

“Worldwide, insects are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Areas such as Kakadu hold an undiscovered biodiversity richness and we’re probably losing species before we even know they exist,” Dr Oberprieler said.

“We can’t conserve what we don’t know, and when it comes to insects we really don’t know much at all.”

Dr Oberprieler worked to improve the understanding of the diversity and distribution patterns of insects and spiders and to identify practical ways of documenting them in the context of conservation planning.

Conservation efforts are typically targeted at vertebrates — mostly birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs — under the assumption their conservation would protect insects automatically.

“When it comes to management decisions, it’s important we consider vertebrates and insects equally, and to do that we need direct data on insect diversity patterns,” Dr Oberprieler said.

“Insects must be included in wildlife surveys as they are extremely important to the ecosystem. We can’t keep putting them in the ‘too-hard basket’. There are sampling shortcuts to help overcome issues land managers face when dealing with the vast number of species.

“We need to kick start action plans to include insects in the first place. Hopefully this will set a precedent to build a brighter future for their conservation efforts.”

Dr Oberprieler has a Bachelor in Zoology and Ecology (Hons) and worked at the CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection. She will graduate at CDU’s May graduation ceremonies this week. Her thesis was titled “Incorporating terrestrial invertebrates in conservation planning: diversity, distribution and cross-taxon congruence in an Australian tropical savanna landscape”.

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