Bugging Out: Could Climate Change Make the Insect Instinct Go Haywire?

Author: Frank Sesno, Huffington Post

Original Article

Gardening in a suburban area is more difficult than most people imagine. There are problems with soil quality and plot space, water and weather. But nothing is more menacing than the docile deer. Decades of development left the deer virtually unthreatened by natural predators, and the arrival of humans and their gardens provided a boom time for deer populations. What makes them such a menace, though, is their fondness for my flowers.

In response to this increase in deer-related garden vandalism, I started purchasing "deer-resistant" plants designed to pass under the radar -- and teeth -- of these hungry forest dwellers. I've adapted to a new reality, just as the deer have. We often forget how lots of creatures are adapting -- from humans relocating to get away from cold winters or hurricanes to moths growing darker wings in response to growing pollution levels.

Amy Seidl, the author of Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming, puts adaptation in a climate context. She notes that several species, from the pine beetle in Colorado to cold-weather birds, are changing their migratory patterns in response to climate conditions. "Animals won't be the only climate migrants if local climates begin to change" she writes. "As temperatures rise, the distribution of species will shift."

Enter Jessica Hellmann of Notre Dame University. In a recent submission to Planet Forward, Hellmann discussed her efforts to encourage "assisted migration" in some bug populations threatened by the rapidly changing climate. Hellmann constructed climate-controlled biospheres in a laboratory environment -- a test tube planet, with chambers representing everything from deserts to marshes and temperate forests. By moving her test bugs between these environments, Hellmann hopes to better understand how humans might move animals out of environmentally declining areas and adapt them to new homes.

"When we think of conservation biology, we think of polar bears," Hellmann said in her submission to Planet Forward. "But in terms of the functioning of biological systems, insects are where it's at. They pollinate, they carry disease, they have economic impacts on crops and timber, and they're very susceptible to climate change."

Hellmann's climate-controlled biomes are a novel way of understanding whether our insect relatives will thrive or struggle in new homes and her work is already yielding interesting findings. Hellmann's bugs proved able to carve out a life in environments very different from their homes, but the actual act of assisting their migration may be more complicated in the real world.

Even though the bugs proved skilled at adapting to a laboratory environment, it may be tough for a relocated species to survive in the wild. New predators, unpredictable weather patterns and the continued encroachment of human development threaten the newly-migrated insects.

Our adaptation to a changing climate isn't that different from the pine beetle or the moth. If Hellmann is correct, the deer that moved in on my garden may be just one of many animal species in the process of migrating to better environments. But will they survive? Will they thrive? And will our ability to move them make people less concerned about the changing climate? Just because we can change rooms doesn't mean we can stop worrying about the rest of the house.