How many bugs make a rainforest?

An insect from a Panamanian rainforest

Chair of Ecology at Griffith’s School of Environment, Professor Roger Kitching has joined an army of more than 100 scientists from 21 countries in taking to the sky over a rainforest in Panama.

They also hung in trees and crawled along the forest floor as part of a painstaking effort to count and classifying the bugs of a single rainforest.

Professor Kitching said it was the most intensive survey of its kind ever undertaken.

“The vast majority of land-dwelling multi-cellular species on Earth are arthropods living in tropical forests,” Professor Kitching said.

“Yet, given the challenges involved in just counting them we know very little about their exact numbers, even within a single forest.”

Nearly 70 person-years were spent finding and collecting the bugs. It then took another eight years to identify the 130,000 arthropods they located and classify them into more than 6,000 species.

But that was from just one sample area. The researchers then were able to extrapolate from their results and estimate that around 25,000 different species of bugs live in the 6,000 hectare rainforest.

One of the significant findings from this study was that there is a close correspondence between the species richness of plants and that of arthropods in the same area; the greater the diversity of plants, the greater the number of bug species.

Professor Kitching said this research is vital if these complex communities and others like them around the world are to be conserved.

“ For every plant species there are 300 species of bugs and it’s the bugs that make the forests work and all the processes in the forest happen upon which we all depend”, he said.

The findings from this study have been published in the paper “How many arthropod species live in a tropical forest?” in the journal Science.