Humans like to think that they rule the planet and are hard wired to do so. But our stewardship has been anything but successful. The last major extinction event, 66 million years ago, was caused by a meteorite. But the next mass extinction event, which is under way right now, is our fault.
Geologists have even given this era in the history of the Earth a new name to reflect our role: the Anthropocene, the age of humans.
It's the first time in the history of the Earth in which one species dominates all the others. These "others" numbers are probably around 10 million. The vast majority are the invertebrates, the animals without backbones. Not all are so small - some squids and jellyfish are several metres long or across.
Most, though, are small and unassuming. And they are hidden in plain view. They are busy maintaining the fabric of the world around us. They are the warp and weft of all natural systems. They make the soil, pollinate the flowers, spread seeds, and recycle valuable nutrients back into the soil. They are also food for many birds that are so loved, and keep other small animals in check by eating or parasitising them.
Yet most of us are oblivious of the many roles of these mostly small, even tiny, animals. If all their services were gone tomorrow, many plants would soon go extinct. Crops would be lost overnight. Many birds would die from lack of food, and soil formation would largely halt. The knock-on effects would also be huge as food webs collapse, and the world would quite literally fall apart.
So how can all the small animals be saved?
Saving small animals
Future generations depend on these small animals, so the focus must be on increasing awareness among the young. Research has shown that children are intrinsically interested in what a bee, cricket, butterfly or snail is. Their small world is at the same level as this small world of insects and all their allies without backbones. Yet strangely, while we care about our children, we care so little for all the small creatures on which our children depend on now and into the future.
Children must be shown that the bee is keeping the flowering plant species alive and well, the grasshopper is recycling scarce food requirements for plants, the millipede is making the soil, and the ladybug is stopping pests from eating all our food. Showing children that this miniature world is there, and that it's crucial, is probably one of the best things to do to help them survive the future in this world of turmoil.
Being aware of what the various species actually do for maintaining ecosystems is crucial to understanding how complex the world around us is. Pointing out that a bee is intimately connected with flowers and so seeds are produced, and an ant is the cleaner of the forest floor, taking away all the debris from other small animals, and the caterpillar is feeding the soil by pooing on it. Then we can conceptually jump to the whole landscape, where there are millions of little claws, mandibles and tongues holding, munching and sucking nectar all the time, even though we rarely see it happening.
A good way to understand this complexity is to view a small community of 1000 species. This can lead to potentially half a million interactions between the various species. Yet the natural communities around us are usually much larger than that. This makes understanding this world too mind boggling, and conserving its complexity too unwieldy. What this means is that for conservation, while we use conceptual icons, like the bee and the butterfly, the actual aim is to conserve landscapes so that all the natural processes can continue as they would without humans.
Conservationists have developed approaches and strategies that maintain all the natural processes intact in defined areas. The processes that are conserved include behavioural activities, ecological interactions and evolutionary trends. This umbrella approach is highly effective for conserving the great complexity of the natural world. This doesn't mean that particular species are overlooked.
Small-creature conservationists in reality work on and develop strategies that work at three levels. The first is at the larger scale of the landscape. The second is the medium scale of the features of the landscape, which includes features like logs, ponds, rock crevices, patches of special plants, among many others. The third is the still smaller scale of the actual species.
The third is really about a conceptual scale because some particular species actually need large spatial areas to survive. At this fine scale of species, conservationists focus attention on identified and threatened species that need special attention in their own right. The beautiful Amatola Malachite damselfly, which is endangered, and lives in the Eastern Cape mountains of South Africa, is a case in point.
The common thought is that it's only tigers, whales and parrots that need conserving. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small creatures that all need special conservation focus like bees for example. And this focus becomes increasingly and critically important every year, if not every day, that passes. It's crucial to think and conserve all these small animals that make up the platform for our future survival on the planet.
Time is short as the Anthropocene marches on. Putting in place strategies that conserve as many animals as possible, along with the rest of biodiversity, is not a luxury for the future. New strategies are possible, especially in agricultural and forestry areas where the aim is to optimise production yet maximise on biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of natural ecosystem function.
Michael Samways receives funding from the National Research Foundation, South Africa and Mondi Group (UK).