E.O. Wilson Weighs In On Burying Beetles And The Desperate Need For Biodiversity

This article appeared on WBUR on May 7, 2019.

By Barbara Moran

United Nations report released this week finds that around 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, with potentially devastating consequences for human health. This has consequences for New England, as development and climate change threaten everything from salt marshes to sea turtles.

Biologist E.O. Wilson knows these threats all too well. A professor emeritus at Harvard University and an internationally recognized expert on ants, Wilson is often referred to as the “Father of Biodiversity.” In recognition for his work, he will receive Zoo New England‘s “Living the Mission” award on May 11.

Image of E.O. Wilson.

E.O. Wilson at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“Our core mission is species conservation and the preservation of biodiversity,” says Eric Baitchman, vice president of animal health and conservation at Zoo New England, which works to preserve rare local species, like box turtles and marbled salamanders. “We can think of no one more fitting to honor with this award than the father of biodiversity himself.”

WBUR sat down with Wilson to talk about his career, endangered species close to home, and how communities can help preserve biodiversity in New England. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Did zoos play an important role in you becoming a naturalist?

I grew up in Alabama where zoos were not common. But my father had a government job, and he was transferred to Washington when I was 9 years old. I found that our apartment was five blocks from the National Zoo and beyond that Rock Creek Park, and I soon began to live at the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park.

I loved going there, and I would fantasize about what it would be like to actually go on safari and see these wonderful creatures in the wild. And I sublimated that by beginning to take trips with another boy — in fact, he went on to become a professor of zoology — and we explored Rock Creek Park. So I was going out all the time with him trying to find all the different kinds of butterflies, and that experience at the National Zoo, with the access to a natural area in Rock Creek Park, made me a naturalist, and I never thought of ever doing anything else.

Where does the term ‘biodiversity’ come from?

Basically, I’ve studied biodiversity all my life without thinking of it. I wanted to study something to do with the variety of life, and I naturally drifted into studies that some 20 years ago came to be called ‘biodiversity’ — shortened from biological diversity — and by the time I became recognized as a scientist studying biodiversity, we had become aware of just how endangered biodiversity is. The Endangered Species Act in the United States helped signal that erosion of life. In reality, it’s one of the great environmental crises of our time.

“Ecosystems where species extinctions have begun could have a runaway extinction process with untold harmful results to humanity.” – E.O. Wilson

Why is it an environmental crisis? Why do we need all these different animals?

I’m asked that all the time: ‘Why do we really need elephants and the Sumatran rhinos and California condors?’ You know, I could stop right there, and I think we’d all say, we don’t want to see these magnificent creatures disappear from this Earth.

But let me address it in a more practical, economic-centered point of view: As you lose diversity you are beginning to alter the ecosystems. You pull a species out, and it turns out to be a keystone species. And believe me, it’s not just some big fish — it can easily be a little wasp somewhere in the ecosystem. Or you insert species that have not been in the ecosystem before. If either one of those things occur, then the natural ecosystems will weaken and collapse. The whole physical environment changes: the rainfall regimes, the freshwater supplies, the fertility of the soil. Ecosystems where species extinctions have begun could have a runaway extinction process with untold harmful results to humanity.

When I think of ‘biodiversity’ I usually think of coral reefs or the Brazilian rain forest. What are some threatened species in Massachusetts?

The extinctions occurring in Massachusetts are mostly local extinctions. What we have [are] species that are disappearing from Massachusetts, and we can see pretty clearly that that is a consequence of habitat destruction and climate warming.

It’s not one that everyone would come to love, but the most conspicuous is the burying beetle. It’s a large beetle that serves a very valuable function in nature. It buries the bodies of dead animals and lays eggs so its own larvae can feed on the dead animals. In so doing, it helps fertilize the soil and make food for a wide variety of other creatures from bacteria on up.

It is actually a beautiful little beetle. If you were collecting beetles you’d want to have it right up top. They’re disappearing rapidly from Massachusetts. I think the last ones are in the islands off the Cape.

How can people help conserve biodiversity in New England?

One is by making certain that the Endangered Species Act is not obliterated, because this protects hundreds of species that everyone would consider particularly valuable as American unique species.

The other is use the natural environment and biodiversity — which kids love anyway — for teaching in schools. Go out on expeditions to see how many species you can find and how to identify them and so on. This is the way to introduce young people to science.

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