Don't Forget The Little Guys!
In May, the environmental advocacy group WildEarth Guardians struck a significant bargain with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will require the agency to consider federal protections for more than 250 species under the Endangered Species Act. To solidify the agreement, The Center for Biological Diversity, which collaborated with the Guardians in earlier discussions with agency, agreed last week not to contest the deal and succeeded in getting the agency to consider protecting eight additional species, including some high-profile species like the Pacific walrus and the North American wolverine.
Those species may be charismatic, but I think it's the settlements’ smallest beneficiaries who have the most interesting stories. In honor of the more than 70 invertebrates included in the agreements, I’m dedicating this post to three unassuming arthropods: The Wekiu bug, Warton’s cave meshweaver, and Stephan’s riffle beetle.
The Wekiu bug (Nysius wekiuicola): Hawaii’s cinder cone sentry.
Discovered in 1980, the 3mm-long Wekiu bug is a relatively recent entomological find. It’s a member of the Lygaeidae or “seed-feeding” family of insects, but it eschews the vegetarianism of its relatives, choosing instead to eat the dead and dying insects the wind carries upslope to its only known home: the summit Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii.
Because it's flightless, the Wekiu bug patrols Mauna Kea’s rock-strewn fields and pallid ash flows like a predatory Mars rover, hunting, and sometimes scavenging, for its wind-blown quarry. The Wekiu bug punctures what prey it finds with piercing mouthparts and sucks up the juices.
These bugs can exist here, more than 13,000 feet above sea level, thanks to a natural antifreeze in their blood that enables them to withstand freezing winter temperatures.
Unfortunately, the Wekiu bug is threatened by habitat loss due to climate change and the construction of astronomical observatories on Mauna Kea.
Warton’s cave meshweaver (Cicurina wartoni): The loneliest troglobite in Texas
Warton’s cave meshweaver is a tiny spider with big problems. Only one specimen of the eyeless, colorless arachnid has ever been found. The spider hails from a cave in Texas, called Pickle Pit, which sits on private land surrounded by a large subdivision. Oh, and the locked gate that keeps unauthorized people from entering the cave is rusted shut, preventing entry by authorized biologists who need to monitor the species and ensure that it still exists (the cave was last surveyed in 2001). In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Species Assessment and Listing Priority Form, the agency has “no current information about effects on the area surrounding the cave, conditions within Pickle Pit, or the meshweaver.” And I almost forgot! The sedentary spiders have to fight nonnative red fire ants and cockroaches for prey, which the spiders catch in small webs spun beneath rocks and cave detritus.
The pictured species is Cicurina cicur, which appears similar to Cicurina wartoni
Despite the species' precarious position, there's something profoundly moving about its story: tiny spiders whose sole earthly abode exists in the murky dim of a sunless grotto in Travis County, Texas, crusaded for by stalwart groups of humans they will never see.
Stephan's riffle beetle (Heterelmis stephani): Arizona's little water baby
Like the Wekiu bug and the meshweaver, Stephan's riffle beetle has an extremely limited range,: a few shallow streams and springs in Madera Canyon in Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains. The dark, elongate beetles use long legs and sharp claws to cling tightly to rocks and stones within swift-moving riffles. Their bellies are covered in a glaze of tiny, hydrophobic hairs that trap oxygen for them to breathe.
Riffle beetles mate in the water and females lay their eggs in stream bottom crooks and crevices. Scientists still know very little about Stephan's riffle beetle, as well as the 99 other North American species of riffle beetle, but they think the insects feed on organic debris, microscopic algae and microorganisms.
All are thought to be important indicators of stream health. Unfortunately, the Stephan’s riffle beetle is threatened by habitat degradation due to channelization for irrigation and climate-change induced drought and floods.
It is listed for federal protection but has been waiting on Fish and Wildlife's candidate list for seven years due to backlog in the agency. Sadly, the delay caused wearied buzznet.com blogger "Rhiwena" and Stephan's riffle beetle researcher to give up hope.
I have documented the lack of knowledge, the lack of effort to stem their decline… Now I am bitter and jaded. I am passing the torch on to others that are still filled with belief and motivation to change things."
Hopefully, news of the recent settlement has reached "Rhiwena", and renewed their faith in the system.
Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern at High Country News.
Image of Wekiu bug courtesy of Karl Magnacca under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Image of Cicurina cicur courtesy of Josef Nemec under Public Domain
Illustration of Stephan's Riffle Beetle courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service