Wanted: dead bugs on Dutch number plates | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 08.05.2012
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Wanted: dead bugs on Dutch number plates

Bugs that end up splashed on a windscreen or number plate might seem like a nuisance, but a biologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands says they can also teach us about insect density and biodiversity.

It may seem small-scale, but a citizens' science project launched by Wageningen University in June 2011 has had quite an impact. People were asked to count the dead bugs on their number plates after driving and share that information with biologist Arnold Van Vliet via a website, Splashteller.nl. Since the initial call-out, more than 600 people have taken part.

"I am absolutely fond of citizen science projects," Van Vliet told DW.

"Without these people we were not able to have such a good overview on such a large scale - because I can't pay researchers to drive around the Netherlands and measure the number of dead insects on their license plate. That would be far too costly," said Van Vliet.

With seven million cars in the Netherlands, driving more than 200 billion kilometers every year, Van Vliets says he saw an ideal opportunity to ask citizens for their help.

Insect density and changes in biodiversity

The website Splashteller.nl (splash counter) asks for basic information.

Participants are asked to provide the approximate size of their car, the distance of their journey, the time of day of the journey, and the start and end locations. And, of course, the number of dead bugs they found on the car number plate after the drive.

This is enough for Van Vliet to analyze insect density in the Netherlands and any changes in its biodiversity. Van Vliet says he still needs at least one or two more years to draw definitive conclusions, but claims to have already made some interesting discoveries.

"Since June 2011 we have found an average of two dead insects per ten kilometers," Van Vliet explained. "That doesn't sound like very much, but if you start calculating, then you come up with numbers like 133 billion insects killed by cars in June alone in the Netherlands. And that's an enormous amount of insects of course."

Birds need Bugs

Tsetse Fly sucking blood from a human host

For many people, bugs are to be feared rather than cared for

Van Vliet says he realizes that insects are not very popular with people, and that a lot of people might not even understand why he thinks his research into dead bugs is so important. But Van Vliet hopes the Splashteller project will create more awareness about the important role that insects play.

"Bugs, for example, play an important role for food supplies for birds," Van Vliet said.

"For the first time we're getting information about the density of bugs, so that's interesting in explaining the breeding success of birds, or the population of birds. Why are there many birds in some parts of the Netherlands and why are there less in other parts. And can insects, and insect density, explain that?"

Threatened species

Compared to other European countries, the Netherlands is not doing well in the field of biodiversity. Population density is high, there is a large number of cars of the roads, and combined with intensive agricultural activities, some say this is raising the pressure on many species.

"We see a very significant decrease in the number of species," said Van Vliet. "That's another thing where insect density might also an explanation of the changes in biodiversity. And we hope that this information will provide additional insights into changes in biodiversity."

With summer on its way, Wageningen Univeristy wants to attract extra attention for Splashteller.nl. Biologist Arnold Van Vliet hopes to receive yet more information about dead bugs to help his research.

The conclusions of his research will be published in the scientific community, but also on Splashteller.nl. This way, says Van Vliet, he will be able to share his findings with the people that helped him.

Author: Laura Postma
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany

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