By Alejandro Ramirez
A new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shows a catastrophic decline in wild animal populations, with a nearly 70 percent decline since 1970.
The report used the Living Planet Index in order to analyze 32,000 populations of 5,270 different vertebrate species. Vertebrates include amphibians, fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. They measured changes in population size throughout the years.
The area with the highest percentage of population decline was Latin America and the Caribbean, some of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Latin American species on average suffered a stunning 94 percent decline since 1970.
Meanwhile, Africa saw a 66 percent decline while Asia and the pacific saw a 55 percent decline in their vertebrate populations. North America saw a 20 percent decline while Europe and Central Asia saw an 18 percent decline. Freshwater animal populations were the hardest hit, with an 83 percent decline.
For some University of Tampa students, the report confirmed what was already known.
“Data presented in each passing article and index like the one discussed continues to build evidence that we are losing biodiversity,” said Jessie Wahlers, marine science-biology major.
“This report did extremely well in addressing global conservation concerns in the natural world, and in explaining the amount of damage that has been done by humans in the last few decades,” said Jessica Diemer, marine science-biology major.
In Florida, one of the species most affected by a lack of food source and by colder weather has been manatees. 1,000 of these animals died off in 2021, plunging the manatee back into the brink of extinction. Seagrass beds, the manatee’s main food source, have been disappearing due to poor water quality.
However, one major animal group not taken into consideration in this report were invertebrates. Invertebrates are animals that do not have a spine. They make up 97% of all recognized animal species and include insects, arachnids, crustaceans (crabs, lobsters), echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins, and crinoids) and many more.
“They [invertebrates] release these nutrients back into the environment. If they didn’t do that, that’s a wasted food source; it’s wasted nutrients,” said Kristian Taylor, assistant teaching professor of Biology at UT, whose research focuses on the ecology of marine invertebrates.
Invertebrates are a difficult group to survey and monitor compared to other animal species.
“To sample them, you have to apply more detailed methods than you would for larger vertebrates,” said Taylor.
A study from 2014 by University College London finds that on average, land invertebrate populations declined by 45 percent over a 35-year period. According to another study in 2012, 20 percent of invertebrates are at risk of extinction.
Invertebrates, along with amphibians, are normally the first to feel the impacts of pollution. According to Taylor, many invertebrates breathe through their body wall, which makes them more susceptible to pollutants and other stressors.
“If there is a stressor of some kind, they don’t have the mechanisms like we do to limit the impact of the stressor,” said Taylor.
Invertebrate populations have declined drastically because of multiple factors such as habitat loss, overfishing/hunting, climate change, pollution, and much more.
Most recently, a study showed that Alaskan King Crab populations have drastically declined by 90 percent in the span of two years, causing the shutdown of the Alaskan Crab fishing season. Some scientists have said that climate change is one of the biggest factors in its decline.
One other well-known invertebrate that is struggling is the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus). One of the biggest factors affecting the horseshoe crab is overfishing. Its blood is used for modern medicine.
Most scientists agree that Earth has now entered into another mass extinction event. Only this time, it is manmade. The loss of biodiversity is fueled by different factors, not just climate change.
“We use climate change as a crutch….it is not always the cause of the decline we see. For most organisms in this mass extinction event, there are two major factors: habitat loss and pollution,” said Taylor.
Governments around the world have tried implementing laws in order to help and protect the populations of wild animals. Most scientists agree that these laws are simply not enough to help alleviate rapidly declining populations of wildlife.
“We have to address climate change first off, and then we have to address habitat loss and all these other things. And we can’t even do climate change,” said Taylor.
According to Taylor, part of the problem with addressing declining invertebrate populations is because they are often willfully neglected. Money donated for conservation often goes to big megafauna like lions, or tigers. While these animals are important, others that play an extremely important role in our ecosystem such as insects and arachnids are often neglected.
“We need to get past multiple legs or squirmy bodies. We need to look at their role in the ecosystem, and understand how important they are,” said Taylor
Part of the reason as to why the United States and other countries don’t do enough is because of money.
“I encourage you to think about this,” said Taylor. “To solve these problems, it’s going to be more expensive. Are you willing to spend more money?”