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To: Reporters and Assignment Editors
From: The Xerces Society
Date: September 27, 2002
Re: Endangered Invertebrates – A case for attention to invertebrate conservation

The Xerces blue butterfly, Antioch katydid, Tobias’ caddisfly, Roberts’s alloperlan stonefly, Colorado burrowing mayfly, Rocky Mountain grasshopper – all of these species have two things in common: they all are insects and they all were driven extinct by humans. With almost one million described species, insects eclipse all other forms of animal life on Earth, not only in sheer numbers, diversity, and biomass, but also in their importance to functioning ecosystems. However, human induced changes to the natural environment threaten vast numbers of these organisms and the vital ecosystem services they provide.


The Xerces Society is dedicated to the smallest of the creatures that run our world: invertebrates. Invertebrates are an overlooked segment of the animals that inhabit this earth, for while they comprise over 94% of the known animal species, they receive little public recognition and support. Many people can identify an endangered Bengal tiger, but few can identify an endangered Sand Creek tiger beetle. We want to change that. Since 1971, we have promoted projects to increase public understanding of invertebrates, while at the same working towards their protection and conservation.

Invertebrates—butterflies, beetles, bees, ants, dragonflies, spiders, snails, lobsters, and starfish, to name but a few—are at the heart of a healthy environment, vital to life as we know it. They build the stunning coral reefs of our oceans, give color to the sparkling fields of springtime wildflowers while providing the service of pollination, break down enormous amounts of organic waste, and serve as food for countless other animals. There is no denying the importance of invertebrates to our ecosystem. Even so, “at risk” invertebrates are often overlooked in land-management decisions. The problem arises because land managers, conservationists, the general public, and even many scientists do not act as advocates for endangered invertebrates. Additionally, because of limitations on funding and the prioritization of efforts to protect more charismatic species, agencies often overlook the specific needs of invertebrates.

Disparity in Endangered Species Act protection between invertebrates and vertebrates

The Endangered Species Act has always treated vertebrates more generously than it does invertebrates. Whereas the ESA authorizes the protection of “distinct population segments” of vertebrates, only species and subspecies of invertebrates may be protected. This provision was a compromise between the House and the Senate in 1978 after the House voted to eliminate protection for invertebrates altogether. Unlike the American alligator and the brown pelican success stories, no insect has been taken off the list because numbers have recovered.

The USFWS lists 44 insects as either endangered or threatened. Do these figures on endangered insect species reflect a realistic estimate as to the number of species at risk? The answer is certainly not. To illustrate, only 4% of the endangered animal species listed by the USFWS are insects, yet insects make up more than 72% of global animal diversity. Of all the vertebrates described in the U.S., 17.9% are listed as threatened or endangered. If we assume that insects and vertebrates face similar destructive forces, at similar levels of intensity, then one could expect to find on the order of 29,000 at-risk insects in the U.S. alone. Although this assumption oversimplifies the situation, it clearly shows that the 44 insects listed as endangered and threatened by USFWS is a gross underestimate.

Detailing a precise conservation plan for insects would take volumes. Conservationists have concluded that the current, widespread destruction of the earth’s biodiversity must be matched by a conservation response an order of magnitude greater than currently exists.

  • Ultimately, to protect any species one must protect its habitat. Some invertebrates only need small areas to thrive, and even backyard gardens may help some pollinator insects.
  • Federal legislation is vital to the protection of endangered insects. In the United States the formal listing of species as threatened or endangered under federal or state endangered species legislation has been an extremely effective habitat protection tool.
  • Many invertebrates have not even been identified. Before we can work to protect invertebrates we need to know, at least, what species are present, if populations are stable or declining, and the habitat needs of these populations. In the long run, more emphasis needs to be placed on invertebrate survey, systematics, taxonomy, and population ecology so that these species can be identified, cataloged, and their life histories understood.
  • To conserve insects successfully, the general public, scientists, land managers, and conservationists need to better understand the extraordinary value that these organisms provide.

We can provide background information, tours of endangered species habitat, and photos for use in publications.

For more information, check our web site at or call us: Scott Hoffman Black, Executive Director: 503-534-2706 Mace Vaughan, Staff Entomologist: 503-232-6639