Caterpillars and the power of biodiversity
“All we have yet discovered is but a trifle in comparison with what lies hid in the great treasury of nature”, said Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology. Van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria in 1676. More than three centuries later, there are still much that is unknown and undiscovered about bacteria.
What van Leeuwenhok said is also relevant to what has been happening in Indonesia. Caterpillar population explosions have occurred in many regions across the country after the first outbreak occurred in Probolinggo, East Java. There has been no single reason as to why the outbreaks have occured. The fact that the incidents involve more than one species of caterpillars is also interesting. There are many questions, such as why have only the numbers of caterpillars exploded and not the numbers of other insects that share the caterpillar’s habitat.
There have been many theories proposed to explain the caterpillar outburst. Damage to forest ecosystems from land clearing and natural disasters, for example, is believed to have contributed to the migration of moths from their natural ecosystem to urban and agricultural areas. On the other hand, the population of the caterpillar’s natural enemies, such as birds, has decreased significantly. The practice of monoculture farming also makes crops more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Climate change may have also contributed to the problem.
Among uncertainties of the outbreak causes, one thing is certain: not everything can be controlled by humans. As natural ecosystems deteriorate, disease or species outbreaks might happen anytime. The population explosion indicates that the ecological balance is in peril. The accumulation of a higher rate of human population growth and a decrease in the ecosystem’s capacity to support human lives has created ecological complexity.
Biodiversity is part of our life. The change in biodiversity will affect human lives, directly or indirectly. Humans are interacting, affecting and are affected by environmental processes.
Norman Myers identified 25 biodiversity “hotspots” in the world. Indonesia is one of them. These biodiversity hotspots only occupy 12 percent of the world’s terrestrial area, but are home to 44 percent of terrestrial plants and 35 percent of terrestrial vertebrates.
However, these biodiversity hotspots are challenged by a high rate of ecosystem exploitation. When overexploitation of an ecosystem occurs, a biodiversity crisis is the result. A biodiversity crisis means not only the loss of biodiversity, but also the uncontrolled expansion of unwanted species. If the population of a certain species erupts, it means that there is a problem in an ecosystem’s balance and processes.
The outbreak may not be totally negative. The caterpillar attacks might raise our awareness that we have done terrible things to our ecosystems and biodiversity. We hunt much wildlife, such as birds, which play a role as the natural enemies of pests.
Many agricultural practices do not consider environmental sustainability. The excessive use of chemicals destroys the habitat and kills beneficial organisms. Farming also tends to be more monocultural, which is not only making plants more vulnerable to diseases and pests, but also leaves no space for biodiversity to occupy the same habitat.
Another lesson from the caterpillar outbreak is in fact there are still small aspects of biodiversity that we have discovered. Andrew Beattie and Paul Ehrlich said that we are living on a little-known planet. Despite the belief that we have discovered most parts of the world, we actually just know about 10-20 percent of the species that share the world with us.
Therefore, what happens to our ecosystem provide a chance to study more about biodiversity. We can solve the problem, as well as improving our quality of life from biodiversity inspirations. The caterpillar outbreak might provide us insight as to what we might face under climate change. Studying biodiversity will also improve our understanding of the sources of food and medicine. As one a mega-biodiversity country, Indonesia actually could become a core region for biodiversity research.
The latest innovation by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proved the power of biodiversity inspiration. By mimicking photosynthesis in a leaf, they created artificial leaves. These artificial leaves, just like natural leaves, use sunlight to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. The process then creates electricity current in a separate fuel cell.
This is also the time to develop biodiversity-friendly agricultural practices. We need to rethink our use of chemicals in agricultural lands. We need agricultural practices that could contribute to the improvement of biodiversity, such as agroforestry or polyculture. Jean-Marc Thiollay, for example, found that traditional agroforestry in Sumatra has played a pivotal role in the conservation of rainforest birds.
The caterpillar outbreak has reminded us the important of biodiversity conservation. Components of biodiversity may provide answers for humanity’s problems in future. Biodiversity is our money in the bank. We have to spend it wisely for our current needs, so we still have some savings for our future lives.
The writer is an ecologist at the University of Bengkulu.