Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Xerces Society: Helping those without backbones for 40 years

Xerces Society logo

The Xerces Society was formed 40 years ago to protect insects and other invertebrates and their habitats.  The Xerces Society was named after the Xerces blue Glaucopsyche xerces, the first North American butterfly species we made go extinct.  Exact reasons behind the Xerces blue's extinction are not known because its ecology was poorly understood before it went extinct, but current best guess is the butterfly and a local ant species had a symbiotic relationship and when invasive Argentine ants displaced most local ant species the butterfly lost a vital life cycle requirement.  Which just shows that little unloved species like ants should be saved just like glamorous mega-vertebrates like giant pandas, because all those little invertebrate species form the food webs' bases and every time a base species is removed it will likely have a disproportionately large response higher up the trophic pyramid.  While most conservation organizations save adorable fluffy animals, the Xerces Society fights the good fight for the little guy, quite literally, saving animals which you would be hard pressed to call cute but are still equally deserving.

Darwin's Hawk Moth Xanthopan morganii praedicta © Rachel Diaz-Bastin
Darwin's hawk moth
Initially the Xerces Society spent much energy saving butterflies, which many find the most attractive invertebrates.  Their butterfly conservation work is still ongoing but other invertebrate groups also get much more focus now.  Pertinently, Xerces protects many freshwater mussel species (a more unadorable a group you can't get- we mammals struggle finding animals cute when we can't identify if they have a head), a group where 71% of North American species are at risk.  Xerces also  protect native bees (a group which usually first makes us think, " Aah- it's a bee!  Run!") and other pollinators, without which many food crops would not produce fruit or reproduce.  Xerces also protects myriad other endangered invertebrate species through many means: they primarily  protect their habitats, but also research their needs since so little natural history information is known concerning most rare invertebrate species, drive species at risk advocacy, and promote education so they can change people's attitudes and behaviors and fewer species will need protection, giving currently endangered species will have a better chance.
Longhorn Beetle Family Cerambycidae © Rachel Diaz-Bastin
Longhorn beetle
Most people think invertebrates are "lower" life forms which stopped evolving long ago.  This is just not the case.  Their body plans may not have undergone such massive changes over the years, but invertebrates have been evolving exactly the same time we have been (starting the moment our common ancestors diverged we have both been evolving our own special ways).  Consequently, invertebrates are (roughly) equally well adapted to their environments.  Invertebrates' evolutionary staying power and ubiquity demonstrate their adaptation ability particularly well.  We also usually think vertebrates are more intelligent than invertebrates.  While this is often true, octopuses (even ones which can't predict football outcomes) are certainly intelligent animals, much more intelligent than many vertebrates I have worked among.  One octopus which I worked among unscrewed and removed a door's bolt which separated a female inside the next aquarium.  You will certainly never see a chicken attempt something comparable.
Mantis Shrimp © Rachel Diaz-Bastin
Mantis shrimp
Concerning invertebrate species which aren't braniacs, intelligence is not the be-all, end-all.  We usually think intelligence is the most important adaptation around, and all species should evolve higher intelligence because higher intelligence is the 'more advanced' state.  We think like this because we are so intelligent and we define ourselves through our intelligence.  Among many species, however, intelligence is costly but does not substantially help them survive, so it is not developed or can actually become reduced.  Ostriches show the fallacy concerning thinking this way regarding evolution (all evolution is a natural progression towards more complex, 'fancier' features).  Ostrich ancestors could fly, but discovered through growing much larger and running they could exploit a niche which they couldn't while flying and so abandoned flight, something we would think is a 'backwards' choice evolutionarily, flight (since it's so darn cool) being the more advanced adaptation.  But like all things, flight has both advantages and disadvantages; so too has intelligence.
Signal Crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus © Rachel Diaz-Bastin
Signal crayfish
Ostriches also do not have a particularly high intelligence (I have worked among many ostriches and I love them dearly but underestimating their intelligence is nearly impossible).  Their heads only have so much room, and eyes (each is larger than its brain) see over long distances extremely well, which is far more important regarding their continued survival and increased reproductive output than a huge brain is.  If is minimal brain requirements are met (e.g. the ostrich can run away when their keen eyes spot a predator) then an ostrich is fine- more brain would increase head weight, which would require a much thicker neck which supports its heavier head at a height which can spot predators and also conveniently reach the ground.  And if you asked an ostrich what the most highly evolved animal traits, which all animals are moving towards, are, unlike us it would likely answer, "Large eyes, long necks, long & strong running legs and tiny little brains."  It's all dependent upon your own perspective.  Ultimately, evolution's pinnacle is represented through each species which has evolved to survive most efficiently in its environment, and this mindset shows invertebrates are definitely at the pinnacle and have been a very, very long time.  So just because certain animal species and us are more closely related does not make them 'better' or more 'worthy' of survival.  Give invertebrates some love too!
Rusty bee from Colorado © Thomas Knight zookeeper
Very cool bee from my yard

That said (in an extremely simplified manner- I do not have time here to go more more deeply into all evolution's complexities; this is not the time and this is not the place), while invertebrates overall have done extremely well, many species have become extremely specialized and consequently (since specialist species are often those which become endangered) those species need some help to survive their habitats' ravages which we have wrought.  The good news is 1) The Xerces Society helps endangered invertebrates, and 2) while the Xerces Society protects invertebrate habitats, they simultaneously protect all other plants, fungi, and animals which live there.  So if you, like me, believe either 1) distantly related tiny little animals should survive although they aren't our close relatives, 2) if we don't save little tiny guys which form the food webs' bases, the big, cute mammals which you do value will have some serious survival problems, or 3) you like that cute furry animal habitat is protected although ostensibly to save creepy little crawly things, then do help the Xerces Society continue their invaluable and unappreciated work, saving the planet's least glamorous animals.  Ugly animals need love too!
Opalescent Nudibranch Hermissenda crassicornis © Rachel Diaz-Bastin
Opalescent nudibranch
Although zoos usually have a more vertebrate focus (because people prefer them), I have fortunately worked among many invertebrates at some zoos and I have been astonished by their different behaviors and abilities.  When I was a child I spent countless awe-filled hours lying flat, watching invertebrates in grass or a pond edge or puddle, living their little lives their own peculiar ways.  My earliest connections among nature involved watching invertebrates, and this is a passion which has never left me.

If you would like to learn more concerning invertebrates, check out the following links/books:

The Xerces Society has a veritable cornucopia of downloadable data concerning how to interact positively with or how to identify your local native invertebrates.

Attracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society
The Xerces Society has also produced this excellent book regarding attracting native pollinators so you can help your own local native species.

Insect Diversity Conservation by Michael Samways
Insect Diversity Conservation by Michael Samways is an excellent book concerning insect conservation.

Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions
Interested in identifying and learning more about your local invertebrates?  There are likely to be local field guides for at least some of your local invertebrate taxa available.  Sadly, many will be only partially complete, but that is usually because even in heavily populated areas there are undescribed species still waiting to be discovered and described.  Interested in naming a new species?  Get really involved in invertebrates and you will be able to!

Communication and Noncommunication by Cephalopods by Martin Moynihan
Don't believe me that invertebrates have cool and complex behaviors?  Check out this easy to read book about Communication and Noncommunication by Cephalopods by Martin Moynihan to see how incredibly complex the behaviors of invertebrates are as well!

Journal of Insect Conservation
Getting really into insect conservation now?  Go to your local university and check out the Journal of Insect Conservation.  And while you're there, check out their references on invertebrates and be amazed at the diversity of animals out there!
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