Many insects, mosses and lichens in the UK are bucking the trend of biodiversity loss, according to a comprehensive analysis of over 5,000 species led by UCL and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH).
The researchers say their findings on UK biodiversity between 1970 and 2015, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, may provide evidence that efforts to improve air and water quality could be paying off.
“By looking at long-term trends in the distribution of understudied species, we found evidence of concerning declines, but we also found that it’s not all bad news. Some groups of species, particularly freshwater insects, appear to be undergoing a strong recovery,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Charlie Outhwaite (UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and the RSPB).
Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the researchers analysed trends in the distribution of invertebrates (such as insects and spiders), bryophytes (such as mosses) and lichens over a 45-year period, to see whether they were following the same declining trends reported in better-studied groups such as mammals, birds and butterflies.
Across all 5,214 species surveyed, overall occupancy (distribution) was 11% higher in 2015 than in 1970. The researchers were not able to estimate the total numbers of each species, but gauged how well each species was doing by whether its geographic range was expanding or shrinking.
They found substantial variation between the different groups, and between individual species within each group. Among the four major groups studied, only one of them – terrestrial non-insect invertebrates (mainly spiders, centipedes and millipedes) – exhibited an overall trend of declining distribution (by 7% since 1970).
More positively, freshwater insects, such as mayflies, dragonflies and caddisflies, have undergone a strong recovery since the mid-1990s, recently surpassing 1970 levels following a 47% decline from 1970 to 1994. Mosses and lichens have also increased in average occupancy (distribution) by 36%, while terrestrial insects, such as ants and moths, exhibited a slight increase.