Victoria Hillman is a National Geographic Explorer and Research Director for the Transylvanian Wildlife Project overseeing research on carnivores and biodiversity of Europe’s last great wilderness. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from the team.
Invertebrates are incredibly diverse, coming in all shapes, sizes and colours. The roles invertebrates play in their ecosystems are diverse. They often dominate in both biomass and species richness come in both aquatic and terrestrial flavors.
They are solitary, gregarious, sub-social or highly social and can be conspicuous or camouflaged, diurnal or nocturnal. Invertebrates are the foundations of ecosystems that supply humans with many essential services: they are responsible for nutrient recycling, plant propagation, food sources, pest control, and the maintenance of community structure.
If we were to lose invertebrates tomorrow, humans would not be far behind.
I use the term invertebrates because this includes insects (those species that possess only three pairs of legs) as well as arachnids and all other arthropods, For the remainder of this post I will just be discussing arthropods.
For a species that is so important and varied, they are the most unloved of all groups of animals and the least studied On a personal level I find them a real joy to photograph and challenge myself to portray them in a way that will make people think about the way they perceive them.
In Europe, the Bird and Habitat directives give protection to 1,140 animal species of which 986 are vertebrates and only 154 invertebrates. These figures represent 64.8% of vertebrates in Europe but only 0.1% of invertebrates.
There are an estimated 35,000 – 40,000 species of insects in the Carpathian Mountains. The hay meadows of Transylvania provide a wonderful place to start documenting the invertebrate life where, to date, we have recorded over 90 species in just a couple of months.
The traditionally managed hay meadows and areas surrounding the streams are especially rich in flora and fauna providing a living archive of knowledge and resources that have been lost in much of Europe.
The communities of Transylvania have been using traditional methods of grassland cultivation and land use since the 12th Century and many of these practices are still in use today resulting in a high diversity of invertebrates in the nutrient poor, semi-natural grasslands.
During the twentieth century, intensified use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides in Western Europe led to significant losses of semi-natural grasslands resulting in dramatic declines in biodiversity. In the UK there has been a loss of around 97% of hay meadows since 1930s leading to the local extinction of some species.
We started our research in the latter half of May so are aware that we have missed out on the early emerging species. However in just a couple of months we have already documented over 90 species of arthropods including 20 species of butterflies, 15 species of grasshoppers and crickets, 5 species of dragonflies and damselflies, 7 species of spider, 2 species of huntsmen, a water scorpion and over 30 species of beetles and shield bugs.
We still have a long way to go but as the leaves start to turn to beautiful golden colours on the trees, autumn is fast approaching and with this comes the end for many invertebrates for another year. We will be ready when they start to emerge in the spring after the snow and we also hope to document the earlier stages of life cycles of those species for which we have already documented the adult stage (for example many of the butterfly and moth species).
The meadows and areas surrounding the streams are literally crawling with both diversity and abundance, so much so that at times you really don’t know where to start! But these areas are under constant threat from agriculture (increased grazing, introduction of pesticides, abandonment). Logging is also a major threat in parts of the Eastern Carpathian range of Transylvania.
To be able to conserve the species that are at the very foundation of complex ecosystems, we need to look at basing programs or initiatives on whole ecosystems moving away from the species specific approach. We need to also loook to one or several heroes that can be used as the poster species for invertebrate conservation, something that has been carried out for years in vertebrate conservation.
We need to open our hearts and minds to these crazy critters, look more closely at them and at what they do. But we cannot even begin to start this until we have knowledge of the species within the ecosystem.
I, for one, love going out and seeing what new species we can add to our list every time we are in the field. I don’t think it would too hard to picture a multi-coloured Eastern Saw Tailed bush cricket, a tiny, funky bright green spider with googly eyes, a praying mantis or even the wonderful pink grasshoppers (as reported in a previous post with an update below) capturing the imagination of people. We have to put pre-conceptions about arthropods aside.
I have always been interested in all animals, but since working in the meadows of Transylvania, I have developed a real love for invertebrates and could easily spend day after day searching and photographing them. I am looking forward to spring when they will be back in the meadows with their noises and colours.
An update on the pink grasshoppers:
Since the first sighting and reporting of the infamous pink grasshoppers, we have been keeping a look out for more and have not been disappointed! On my first trip out we found the nymph stages at the ruins and an adult in one of the meadows. On my second trip we found them in three other locations.
The individuals we found were not all completely pink, a few were while others were pink and green, but even the fully pink individuals seem to blend in surprisingly well among the dried pale brown grass where they seem to be thriving. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see so many especially given how conspicuous the first ones we found were.
Here are the images of those that we found during my last trip:
We are still going through the photographs we have of the invertebrates so far working on identifications as our thoughts turn to planning for the autumn and winter months which will see the deer rut, bears feeding up for the winter and snow. We have now placed 17 cameras in the research site and are continuing to gain great insights into the wildlife of the area and I will bring you more news from the cameras soon.
For now, I hope you have enjoyed reading about insects and maybe be inspired to get out and seeing what weird and wonderful creatures you can find!