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Recognizing the quiet extinction of invertebrates


Invertebrates are central to the functioning of ecosystems, yet they are underappreciated and understudied. Recent work has shown that they are suffering from rapid decline. Here we call for a greater focus on invertebrates and make recommendations for future investigation.

Invertebrates rule the world as we know it in terms of biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems. This is why scientists have repeatedly called to assess this essential part of biodiversity as well as its ecosystem effects. In addition to conspicuous changes of ecosystems, such as the decline of charismatic vertebrate populations, the less obvious disappearance of many invertebrates also has dramatic consequences for the ecosystem services humankind depends on. Recently, a report of alarming declines in invertebrate biomass3 has triggered broad public attention that is now also percolating into political discussion and decisions in several countries. As a consequence, new national and international biodiversity assessments, monitoring initiatives, and action plans are being discussed, and scientists are asked for guidance.

First cross-taxon comparisons indicate that biodiversity loss may be even more pronounced in invertebrates (e.g., butterflies in Britain) than in plants and birds. These studies suggest substantial changes in invertebrate diversity and community composition that have been happening almost unnoticed and indicate that species may become extinct before we even know about their existence. The Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an important reference for the threat of species, but it is still heavily biased towards vertebrates, with invertebrates being particularly underrepresented (Fig. 1). Thus, a broader taxonomic base for threatened species assessments, adequately representing invertebrates, will facilitate more profound conservation and policy decisions.

It is often the case in biodiversity assessments that there are spatial and taxonomic biases in available data, and this is especially true for invertebrates. The majority of the invertebrate taxa that have received most attention in past biodiversity assessments is closely related to pollination. In fact, most animal pollinators are insects (e.g., bees, flies, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, and thrips), and bees are the most important pollinator group, visiting >90% of the leading global crop types. Over recent years, public appreciation of pollinators has grown, and bees remain one of the better-understood taxa because of their important contributions to food security. The most recent assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on pollinators, pollination, and food production acknowledges that wild pollinators (mostly invertebrates) have declined in occurrence, abundance, and/or diversity. However, even for these widely-valued species, there are knowledge gaps, such as in regions outside of North-West Europe and North America.

These problems only become greater when other invertebrates are considered. While there is spatially and temporarily detailed data for some charismatic indicator taxa, such as butterflies in the European Union9, information about other invertebrates is lacking. For instance, soil invertebrates and soil-dwelling larval stages of flying insects, which represent a major biodiversity pool in terrestrial ecosystems, have been woefully neglected in many biodiversity databases and assessments, as well as in conservation actions and policies8. In addition, while assessments of invertebrate species richness, abundance, and biomass provide important information regarding biodiversity changes, they may not capture more subtle yet ubiquitous changes in other biodiversity facets, including genetic, phylogenetic, and functional diversity and community composition.


Eisenhauer, N., Bonn, A., Guerra, C. A. (2019). Recognizing the quiet extinction of invertebrates. Nature communications, 10(1), 50. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07916-1.

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