Entomology is going extinct — could Pokemon Go save it? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 26.03.2019
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Entomology is going extinct — could Pokemon Go save it?

Insects are dying and the science that studies them is endangered, too. James Jackson went to the German Entomological Conference to find out how to save the science — and if Pokemon Go could catch new recruits.

There has been a lot of alarm in the past few years about the decline of bees and other insects, with the New York Times even going so far as to call it "Insect Armageddon."

Although the German Entomological Conference in Halle, central Germany, is buzzing with activity, some of the entomologists themselves are markedly pessimistic.

Read more: How to stop an insect apocalypse

"We are ourselves an endangered species," said Jürgen Gross, President of the German Entomological Society. "We have a lot of dark clouds in the future. The specialists who have knowledge about different species are mainly old men."

A giant moth held by an entomologist

A giant moth held by an entomologist

Taxonomists, who have the ability to identify insect by species, are particularly threatened, despite their work being more vital than ever. Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Alexander König Museum in Bonn warned DW that "in the universities we have lost nearly all experts.

"Taxonomists are only surviving in natural history museums and in civil society," Wägele said. "We have a lot of citizen scientists who are real experts, but they are also dying out. In the NGOs you find mostly men over 50. The next generation is missing. We are pessimistic."

But with all the problems in today’s world, why does this aging and relatively obscure science matter?

"Entomology is extremely important because insects are the most diverse life forms that we have. There are more than a million species that we know of and there are estimates that there are two or three million out there that we don’t," Markus Riegler from Western Sidney University told DW. “ Up to a third of our global food production is lost to pests, so beneficial insects that control those pests are really important. We need to to be able to recognize and understand individual species and their responses to climate or environmental change."

Patrice Bouchard (Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada as represented by the Minister of Agriculture)

A relatively young Entomologist with Canada's agriculture ministry

Not all doom and gloom

There's a smattering of eager young faces at the conference. Among them is 21-year-old Ella Doveton, a biology student and scientific illustrator showcasing her impressive drawings of extinct insects in the coffee room, and talking with fellow under-50s about her insect playing card set. Responding to the future hopes of entomology, she was hopeful.  

"I think there is an age group of children, between seven and 12, who are very interested in insects. People interested in hands-on fieldwork aren’t in short supply, but what’s harder to find are people who can identify beetle species. They might be a bit greyer.”

Bee on a flower

Bees have received particular attention due to their important role in ecology and pollination

“In the future I’d like to become a real scientist, a researcher, and use the illustration as a plus," Doveton told DW. "The wealth of structures of form and function is so rich in biology."

Riegler too had hopes in the broadening of the field. 

"One aspect that has seen an enormous change is that there are many citizen science projects that have picked up in the space of monitoring and collecting information about insect and biological diversity in general," he said. "This is a potential avenue to get people interested in the future." 

He’s right to be excited about Citizen Science. The group that first proved the 75 percent decline in insects was a volunteer team at the Krefeld Entomological Society, near Dusseldorf, a citizen science project that produced one of the most important scientific papers of the year.

Over 40 percent of insect species face extinction: study

So what kind of people become entomologists? Doveton's answer is clear.

"Entomlogists are focused, interested in what they do. I don’t want to say I picture an old person but that’s what we see in reality. You find people who are quirky and excitable, who enjoy sharing what they love."

But how can we get the next generation interested, practically?

Besides being older white men, these insect-obsessives all had one thing in common: they began to hunt, collect, and identify insects at a young age. Gross began collecting insects at the age of five and gave his parents a lot of trouble with the insects he brought home, whereas Riegler’s dad dreamed of being an insect doctor, and encouraged his son in observing insects, keeping them in containers and learning how they function. 

Young people gather outside in Dortmund for a Pokemon Go Safari

Young people gather outside in Dortmund for a Pokemon Go "Safari"

Could Pokemon Go lure in future entomologists?

Markus Riegler noted that "although I’ve never been involved in Pokemon, I see the similarities. If I go walking out in nature I go looking for insects and I’m curious about them and I’m seeking them out in their environment and that’s a similarity with what Pokemon chasers [hunters] do."

In his keynote speech, Wägeler talked about getting science out of its Ivory Tower and working with media companies to spread ideas. A Pokemon Go inspired augmented reality project could help do that. 

"I am sure if we use digital media in a playful way we can get more interest from young people," Wägeler said. "It’s possible to combine the Pokemon idea with the discovery of species in landscapes."

 Pokemon Go fans descend upon German park for two-day gaming event

But Riegler warned that just getting young people and amateurs interested won’t cut it. If you want to make entomology into a career, it can be a challenge.

"We need to make sure there are pathways to training and then job opportunities," Riegler said. "It needs a concerted effort in training as well as career development, so people can make a career out of their interest in insects." 

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