Why Nobody Understands The Full Complexity Of The Rainforest

2 years ago/Adam Gebb

Over the decades many of us have seen countless high-quality nature documentaries or read the works of wildlife experts who can explain the lives of many species. Usually large emblematic species like Jaguar, or rare and endangered species get most of the attention.

What is really driving the resiliency and health of the Ecuadorian rainforest?

Terry Erwin at the University of Wisconsin / Madison reports that there’s more than 100,000 different species of insects in a single hectare of Ecuadorian Rainforest. (a hectare = 2.5 acres)

This study only looked at one hectare of Ecuadorian Rainforest. It did not look at other hectares. The study did not consider other forest types, insects in the soil or in the air column above the forest. It did not consider any other species such as amphibians, plants, birds or mammals.

The fact that one hectare of tree canopy has 100,000 species of insects leads us to many interesting conclusions. The true total species count for a hectare is likely way beyond 100,000. But let’s just use that number for simplicity.

Scientists could probably tell us something about 500 - 1000 species out of the 100,000 at best. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say 1,000. So, if we put the knowledge of many scientists together, they could tell you a lot about 1% of the life in this one hectare. That leaves 99% in the nobody knows category.

We do understand generalities such as that many insects are decomposers that recycle nutrients back into the soil and pollinators that are crucial to the ability of trees to reproduce and create the fruit that many mammals eat. But there’s still at least 99,000 species in that forest that we know very little or nothing about.

The Guardian recently reported that the world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review. Insect populations are collapsing around the world. In Puerto Rico, many birds have vanished in conservation areas as their key food source insects have mostly disappeared.

Jaguar and the Great Green Macaw (for example) have been relocated into areas where they once prospered, but its impossible to relocate a complex community of 100,000 insect species. These communities are the true back bone of many ecosystems. It is here that we have to focus if we want to succeed at maintaining diversity.

The Ecuadorian Amazon still has millions of acres of virgin rainforest. Roads and the development that follows are destroying this eco-system faster than it could ever be studied. It’s too late for scientific studies to figure out how this system functions and how the processes of evolution can be maintained. Protecting rare and endangered species and conserving ecological hot spots where they live is really important, but these projects in the absence of larger efforts to reconnect wild areas are like the doctor who makes some of your symptoms go away but never cures you. The real cure is to maintain the ancient evolutionary processes that created bio-diversity over millions of years.

Unless we work on the real cure, the rare and endangered species list will be much longer in the near future. The real cure is allowing species and entire forest communities to migrate long distances to diverse ecological and geographic settings in their search for habitats that meet their full life cycle needs in an ever-changing climactic environment. It’s a systems ecology approach and the cure is called Bio-Corridors.

A Bio-corridors is defined as…  a geographically defined area which provides connectivity between landscapes, ecosystems and habitats, natural or modified, and ensures the maintenance of biodiversity and ecological and evolutionary processes. What we want is for evolutionary processes to continue creating new species. Most of these new species will be insects. These insects will continue to be the essential backbone of the rainforest and many other ecosystems. In Ecuador that means the conservation of millions of hectares of habitat that connect the Amazon basin and the Andes Mountains.

While we will likely never know how the rainforest really functions, we can work to conserve enough land in the right places so that un-knowable ancient evolutionary processes can continue their magic.

See the Andes Amazon Conservancy Bio-Corridors project for more details.

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