Rock Stars of the Forest

From Erika Hernandez Calvo, Expedition Guide on the Safari Voyager 

The forests of Costa Rica and Panama—and tropical forests in general—are home to many the planet’s plants and animals. People from all over the world travel to enjoy these forests and what they encompass: mammals, birds, flowers, amazing landscapes, and nature. These places have been called the most biodiverse intense, and in our minds, we believe that as soon as we hit the jungle, we will encounter jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, birds and lots and lots of colorful flowers.

All these creatures are the rock stars of the forest and somehow symbolize the tropics. We are eager to find them, and in this quest for the large, we forget the small but invaluable creatures that make this and all biodiversity happen: insects.

Insects are everywhere; therefore they are easy to see. They come in different shapes, sizes, and colors that could compete with the most colorful birds. Insects also have a fascinating natural history capable of blowing our minds. They have been around for millions of years, long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. They have survived five rounds of mass extinction. These small creatures have a smart design and adaptations to cope with their surroundings. Their connections and relationships with plants and other live forms assure the reproduction and the survival of their kin and all others, including humankind.

Insects that live in the tropics are generally not all that different from insects that live in temperate regions, although the number of species in the tropics is much higher than elsewhere (Then again, the number of species of almost everything is higher in the tropics!)

The other day, I was listening to a podcast about Terry Irwin, an entomologist of the Tropical Smithsonian institute, who estimated that the total number of species that might be present in the world was based on a number of insects that he had found in 19 individual trees in an un-rich forest in Panama. These 19 individual trees produced almost a thousand species of beetles! That shows how biodiverse the tropics are, since the study was done in an area that was less than an acre! In San Lorenzo National Park, the protected area that encompasses not just the amazing fortress that we visit on our itinerary in Panama, but also an amazing rainforest, was the place where the very first insect census took place. In a study that took about 8 years, the estimated amount of arthropods in 12 thousand hectares of National Forest was of almost 26 thousand species!

There are more than one million species of insects in the world, which is half of all known extent species on the planet. They have a huge amount of biomass. They are extremely important to the world ecologically, and to us humans economically. Based on different characteristics of insects, humans have developed incredible technology and even artificial intelligence.

Insects are fun to watch. Individually and collectively, they are fascinating and very complex, although they don’t seem like it. Have you ever wondered how they survive, where they go, and how they come up with those shapes or colors or scents? Do you know how essential they are to the life on this planet?

And have you ever wondered what you can do, even from home, to assure the survival of those insects? I know whenever I say the word insects, people immediately think about mosquitoes and diseases or whatever buzzing that annoys them, and immediately, they close to the possibility of getting to know them. Instead of protecting ourselves with proper wear, we lather on chemicals that are deadly to many of them. Human alteration of the environment in Tropical America continues to have a negative impact on many insect species. But we don’t have to go far to experience the decrease and extinction of our species. Think locally. Our gardens, for example. We go to stores and purchase beautiful exotic plants that are useless for our ecosystems, and we don’t even consider the extent of the damage we do to our local nature. The pesticides that we spray always, always, are going to run off and contaminate and kill many insects, in our garden and beyond. It is better to plant and preserve local species to allow our insects to survive and keep up our ecosystems. And to get to know better the little creatures that share this beautiful planet with us.