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Published: 2022-07-01

6,000 years of human impact on the biodiversity of insects

NEWS A network analysis of fossil insect data from northwestern Europe shows two major shifts in taxonomic biodiversity: one at the start of the current warm period (Holocene) 10,000 years ago, and another about 4,000 years ago. This work was made possible by research infrastructures funded by the Swedish Research Council and Umeå University.

Text: Per Melander

When the same method as described above is applied to the ecological implications of these species, biodiversity changes can be connected to landscape and climate changes, including the introduction of farming about 6,500 years ago.

Several studies have shown evidence of ongoing insect biodiversity decline. But how has insect biodiversity changed in the past? A recent study investigated the fossil record of beetles, the most species-rich insect order, to understand how past changes in climate and landscape affected their biodiversity during the past 16,000 years in northwestern Europe.

The study found that, by modifying the landscapes, humans have affected beetle biodiversity since at least the introduction of agropastoralism, ca. 6,500 years ago. The study also showed that human population growth 4,000–3,500 years ago had as dramatic an impact on insect communities as the global warming after the last ice Age (ca. 10,000–9,500 years before present).

Past human impact affects the entire landscape

These results are particularly interesting because they were observed at locations away from areas of direct human impact (i.e. archaeological sites), indicating that human changes to the landscape have profound and pervasive effects on ecosystems and biodiversity. Thus, these results have important implications for current insect biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management.

For example, by showing that human impacts on biodiversity date back thousands of years, they suggest that the use of relatively recent pre-industrial baselines as targets for restoring ‘natural’ landscapes and biodiversity is highly questionable. The results also demonstrate the importance of a long-term perspective in biodiversity and conservation science.

Research infrastructure

This work was made possible by research infrastructures funded by the Swedish Research Council and Umeå University (among others), including SEAD now part of the Swedish National Infrastructure for Digital Archaeology and Swedish LifeWatch (now part of SBDI, the Swedish Biodiversity Data Infrastructure The publication is a collaboration between researchers at The Environmental Archaeology Lab (MAL) and IceLab at Umeå University.