Movers and Shakers

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Insects, more so than any other class of animal, are the movers and shakers of the Maritimes, responsible for more ecological processes even than the large, charismatic mammals who so often inspire our dutiful conservation. Insects, in their untold abundance and diversity, matter more to our landscape even than the mighty moose, or elusive lynx.

This was a startling revelation for me, since I’d dedicated a career to at-risk species and ecosystems without once considering the zoo beneath my feet. The point was made for me by retired population ecologist Soren Bondrup-Nielsen, a veteran of Acadia University’s biology department and current president of the Blomidon Naturalists Society. With ardor he described the staggering significance of our local insects, to whom little concern, research or conservation is being paid.

The majority of us can barely identify the insects we encounter daily, dismissing the lot as pests when in fact the vast majority of insects occupying our region do nothing but make life possible. They recycle our wastes and those of the biosphere, renewing a world which would otherwise drown in its own refuse. Without insects there would be no pollination, no migratory birds bothering to visit the buggy north, no fast action composting, no us. And wildest of all, these insects aren’t even all accounted for.

Soren himself has discovered insects in Nova Scotia previously unknown to science. Then there’s retired coleopterist and lepidopterist (beetles and butterflies respectively) Dr. Reggie Webster who, in the last 15 years or so, has more than doubled the number of beetles known in New Brunswick, from about 1,200 to over 3,000. Again, several were new to science, some discovered in bizarre, hyper-specialized habitats where no one had previously thought to look, while others were literally uncovered in his backyard, a testament to the world we’ve chosen not to see.

Webster specializes in the insect family Staphylinidae (rove beetles), particularly its subfamily Aleocharinae, of which he and colleagues estimate only 80 per cent have been formally discovered. While he’s less familiar, Webster suspects families of fly are likewise unfinished. Another example is the featherwing beetle family, the majority of whom he believes remain undiscovered.

My favourite story of recent discover comes from Paul Brunelle, a natural historian and founder of the Atlantic Dragonfly Inventory Program (ADIP) in 1992. While surveying the unassuming shores of Canoose Stream, New Brunswick, in August of 1993 he came across strange exuviae – the shed skins of larvae as they emerge into flying adults. Considerable consultation told him that these belonged to an unknown species, a suspicion confirmed in 1995 when colleague Robert Harding captured the first living specimen after sundown along the same waterway; a dragonfly, it would turn out.

In 2000 Brunelle formally described Neurocordulia michaeli in the scientific literature, known now by its common name, the broad-tailed shadowdragon. Since then it’s been found as far west as Ontario, as far south as New York State, and in 2011 it was discovered as far east as the St. Mary’s River, Nova Scotia, identified by zoologist John Klymko of the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre. A new species of dragonfly hadn’t been discovered in Canada since 1954.

All this to say that an outstanding chunk of Maritime biota is being overlooked in our quest to strike a sustainable balance with the natural world. In fact the decisions we are making as a region right now, such as the treatment of our wilderness, the spraying of our foods, the hatred of unseemly weeds, may be having huge consequences for a community of insects we have yet to dignify with a name. We may, at this moment, be eradicating species we didn’t even know exist, tragically unaware of their niches or their needs as we hasten their decline, simply because we weren’t looking.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.

Shown above is an artistic rendering of the broad-tailed shadowdragon.  (Paul Brunelle image)