Tromping through the rainforest with five other people, loudly discussing how we are going to set up the next sampling plot is not a great way to see wildlife in the Amazon. In fact, as a plant ecologist not seeking out the high flying (or swinging) or well-camouflaged critters of the rainforest, the only wildlife I’m guaranteed to see during a trip to the field are invertebrates (insects, spiders, worms, etc. that aren’t usually conjured up by the word “wildlife”). Which makes, sense because despite their small size as individuals, invertebrates as a group far outweigh mammals in total biomass. Translation: they may be small, but they are many.
They also don’t flee or hide from loud humans, as other animals are wont to do. In fact, they usually find me. Dripping sweat after a short hike in the equatorial heat is sure to attract stingless bees, which tickle my skin as they go for salts in human sweat. A hitchhiking tarantula had to be swiped from my back by a coworker before it made its way to my neck (a surprise which surely would have not set well with me) in a moment which had me thinking of both Indiana Jones and my childhood pet tarantula the rest of the day.
And while seeing a large centipede work its way up my leg towards my waistband is a bit disconcerting—they have a nasty bite—it was interesting to watch the many legs move asynchronously as it made its way to the safety of a pile of leaves after it was pushed to the ground. Yes, they can be irritating and some are dangerous, or carry dangerous diseases, but for the most part they’re just fascinating. There are so many different kinds!
The Amazon has no shortage of invertebrate biodiversity: one acre may have 70,000 species of insect. The wide variety of invertebrates make for interesting viewing in either their behavior or form: leaf cutter ants parade through forest with their bright loads, beetles show off fierce-looking horns, butterflies dance across stream edges. Besides being fascinating to watch, invertebrates play vital roles in the rainforest ecosystem. For example, they are key to nutrient cycling, breaking down detritus and making nutrients available soon after hitting the forest floor in the form leaves and fallen trees, a dead animal or, the dung beetles’ favorite, a fresh pile of dung.
Unfortunately, many invertebrates, like the rest of the rainforest inhabitants find themselves threatened. In fact, a staggering 1 in 5 invertebrates species throughout the world are threatened, according to a recent report by the Zoological Society of London and review by the IUCN. Not only are these animals fascinating in their own right (charismatic microfauna?) but they are pollinators, engineers, nutrient recyclers, and more which in turn make them important for the towering trees and all the animals in the rainforest that I rarely see, as well as people.
My own work with palm resource management in the Peruvian Amazon may not directly target invertebrate conservation, but we are protecting habitats for everything large and small.
So, if you ever find yourself in the rainforest, take time out from looking for the beautiful birds and chattering primates to appreciate the plethora of insects that are surely right in front of you. And if you don’t make it to the rainforest, or want to enjoy watching these creatures without wondering if one might be crawling on you, check out the Insect House at the San Diego Zoo.