Studying 'unsung ecosystem heroes'

29 October 2018 | Environment

A landmark study of Namibian Lacewings funded by Nedbank Namibia's Go Green Fund is set to boost knowledge of the insects' occurrence and role in the environment while also addressing the severe shortage of Namibian bug scientists.

Dr Rolf Becker, dean of the faculty of Natural Resources and Spatial Sciences at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) who heads the study, says they have two main objectives.

“From a research perspective, the goal is to survey lacewing diversity and occurrence patterns to better understand their contribution to the country's overall ecology.”

The second main objective, is human capacity development to address the lack of insect scientists in Namibia.

Lacewings are members of the Order Neuroptera, and eleven families are known to occur in Namibia presently – a figure that could change as the research progresses.

Currently there is a severe shortage of entomologists in Namibia, with very few qualified scientists educated in this field living in the country. The study hopes to boost awareness of insects in general, and particularly at university level, to encourage more students to specialize in this direction.



Help from abroad

Easing the burden, is the enrol-ment of a PhD student who registered for her studies at NUST. Gail Morland's PhD is related to the diversity of lacewings in the trans-frontier conservation areas linking Namibia's Skeleton Coast to Iona in Angola. Her enthusiasm is infectious and underlines the important bio-diversity role that insects play.

Insects, she says, are the “unsung heroes of every ecosystem on the planet. They are the little things that make is possible for large animals to survive. They are ecosystem engineers that handle the messy part that nothing else wants to do.”

She underlines the importance of the work undertaken through the study, noting the many gaps of knowledge of insects in general in Namibia.

“There is so little we know about insects and still so much left to learn and discover.”

Morland and Becker agree that to strengthen conservation efforts, ecosystem biodiversity needs to be examined extensively, and that includes insects. “As people focus more on conservation efforts, we shouldn't just be focused on the big and hairies, because without insects there wouldn't be ecosystems for them to survive in,” Morland said.



Collections

To date, the study, which is being carried out throughout the country, has resulted in more than 770 specimens collected, many from localities not previously investigated.

“Currently there are about 140 species of lacewings known to occur in Namibia, of which 24 are thought to be endemic. However, it is well known that we are far from having discovered all the insects that occur in Namibia, and similarly, for lacewings, it is anticipated that this study will find quite a number of undescribed species,” Becker says.

Already, barely a year after the study was launched, at least two to three previously undescribed species have been identified.

Many of the more than 700 specimens collected have been photographed and processed for preservation and deposition in the National Museum in Windhoek.

Becker says lacewings are “beautiful and delicate creatures”, with a superficial resemblance to dragonflies, but while similar, are easily distinguished in that they are daintier and fly mostly at night.

Obtaining a broader understanding of lacewings in Namibia will not only deepen knowledge on their distribution and role in the environment, but could strengthen conservation efforts in Namibia.

“Lacewings can be useful ecological indicators. Some species are very sensitive to environmental and habitat fragmentation and pesticide contamination and can therefore be used as barometers of environmental health,” Becker explains.

Further, because lacewing larvae are predators, they impact on populations of other insects and are thus sought after as biological control agents.



Helping hand

Nedbank Namibia's Go Green Fund supports a number of unique studies contributing to a better understanding of Namibia's lesser-known creatures and environments, collectively adding to the enhancement and improvement of conservation in the country.

“This is an excellent example of how the private sector can contribute to research and capacity building in Namibia. An example that is exemplary.”

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