Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Bureaucracy of Bugs: The Endangered Species Listing Process

Comal Springs Drypoid Beetle-

Hello and welcome to a new edition of The Political Bug! I’d like to begin by apologizing for the unexpected hiatus. A combination of sudden work responsibilities and end-of-the-semester craziness conspired to disrupt my schedule. On top of that, I actually did have this article prepared some time ago, but I misplaced the flash drive it was on and therefore had to start from scratch. Finally, I would like to express my delighted surprise at the comments I have received from the readers. I will get back to you all as soon as I can. Well, with that out of the way, back to where I left off!

                The process of getting a species registered on the Endangered Species list is a two-step process that is handled by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The first step in this process is called the Petition. Any private person can submit a petition to have a species listed as endangered and the FWS is obligated to acknowledge a petition within thirty days of submission. The purpose of the petition is to determine if the is enough merit to consider further action. This is based on whatever scientific or commercial data that the petitioner submits with the petition document, which must include the species’ scientific and common name, descriptions of past and present population dynamics, and information on the species’ status throughout its range. Note that there is no requirement to actually prove that the species is threatened or endangered at this point. The petition merely has to build a credible case that such action may be warranted.

Pomace Fly-
                If, after ninety days, the FWS confirms that the petition warrants further investigation, it moves on to the Review stage of the process. During this step, the FWS must determine if the petitioned species meets the listing criteria. A species will be considered endangered or threatened if its habitat is subject to destruction, overutilization, disease, predation, or some other similar circumstance. If a species is considered to have met the definitions of either endangered or threatened, the FWS moves on to determine its priority in listing. Due to limited funding, not all petitioned species get placed on the list and priority is given to some over others. The FWS ranks petitioned species by the immediacy of the threat against the species and the genetic distinctiveness of the species. Rankings run from one to twelve, with ranks one through three actually making the list. The rest are considered candidates and do not receive protection.

                So, how does this process impact insects trying to make the list? Well, to begin with, the petition process places a substantial threshold regarding collecting enough data regarding the potential threatened or endangered status of a species. Collecting this data requires the work of dedicated individuals that are few and far between. From personal experience, it seems that the bulk of insect research goes to studies targeting pests or commercially important species, like honeybees. Rare species of insects are hard to find even for experts, so collecting sufficient data on them is a problem. And even then, arguing that there is a commercial or scientific necessity to protect a given species is sometimes difficult to do.

                Even if the petitioned insect species makes it to the Review step, it can still be given a low priority score due to the “genetic distinctiveness” criterion. The FWS emphasizes the protection of monotypic genera or a genus that is represented by only one species. Because insects are the most specious group of animals on the planet, it is rare for a genus to be represented by only one species. Lower classifications, such a distinct genera and subspecies have even lower priority, due to being less unique.
Puritan Tiger Beetle-

Insects are able to have many generations over a short time frame, which can lead to genetic separation very quickly. It is likely that budding species occur in insects more frequently than in mammals and birds. However, these species are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the parent species (crypto-species) and would not be genetically distinct enough to receive a higher priority ranking according to the FWS.

Well, that’s all I have time for. Thank you again for reading. Before I go, I have a little competition for you all. Below is a picture of an insect and I would like you all to leave a comment guessing at what it is. The first person to correctly guess it will be recognized in my next post. Take care, everyone!


What's that bug?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Right direction. But I'm looking for something a little more specific. Keep trying!

  3. OMG, it's a giant weta! I've held one of those before, they're so sweet. They are native to New Zealand where I live, that's probably the reason I know.