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Howard University Fish and Wildlife Adaptation Intern Shania Brace shares highlights from her time researching climate impacts on insects with the National CASC.

This article was written by Shania Brace, Howard University Fish and Wildlife Adaptation Intern.


Many people are afraid of insects, but growing up, I always appreciated them. Instead of killing insects, I prefer to save them and move them outside. Despite the fear surrounding them, many insects are essential to our ecosystems and provide important services such as pollination. The foods and places we love and even the smell of fresh air would change without insects. However, like larger animals, insects feel the effects of climate change. With increasing temperature and damage to the insect's natural habitat, many are forced to shift their location and change their phenology, life history cycles, and physiology to adapt to their new environments. 

Temperature increases are forcing insects to find new environments where they can thrive; insects are shifting their ranges faster than many other taxonomic groups. The physiology and phenology of insects limit where they can survive, however. Insects are ectothermic, which means they rely on the environment to regulate their body temperatures. Range shifts occur when species change their spatial distribution, or how they’re spread across the landscape, to cope with rising temperatures in their current environment. However, the results from a recent review of range shifts showed that not all insects are shifting as we might expect. Looking at species' traits could help us better understand and predict future range shifts. During my internship, I searched scientific literature and created a centralized database of insect traits. In addition to being used to understand and predict species range shifts, the trait database can now be used in other research projects that seek to use insects' size, dispersal, and life span to look at other impacts of climate change on these animals. 


My Project 

To find the traits for the insect database, I used Google Scholar, Google search, and the references listed in Wikipedia. Some of the key terms I used yielded some papers that provided information on the traits of the insects; however, I could not find trait data for many insects. When no data was provided from Google Scholar papers, I then tried the Google search engine. When using this method, I came across a lot of grey literature. The Google search engine. While using this method, I came across a lot of grey literature, or literature that’s published outside normal academic publishing. The Google search engine led to websites like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) that showed the dispersal of many insects. Using the references on the Wikipedia page for body size and life cycle data also helped me find more data. I believe that grey literature was more valuable in this instance because there is a lack of reported data on insect traits in traditionally published scientific literature. 

Along with these methods came some challenges. The first challenge I faced was that many papers only reported the qualitative data for an insect, not the quantitative data. If a source only used qualitative data, I would search the reference list of papers that may have used quantitative data to back up the qualitative data described. Unfortunately, most of the time, the reference papers did not report quantitative data either. 

The next challenge was finding the body size of the Lepidoptera family, which includes moths and butterflies, in the literature. Instead of reporting body size for the species in the Lepidoptera family, many papers reported only the wingspan. This was a challenge because the search terms for the species in the Lepidoptera family had to be changed since body size was not reported, and I had to search more extensively to find the accurate wingspan reported for those species. 

I also had to ensure the websites that provided the phenology and physiology of a species were reliable sources. For example, some sites from other countries reported species' body size, habitat, dispersal, etc., differently and I had to check what organization was running the sites, if sites could be appropriately cited, and if the organizations or scientists were reputable. This was difficult because some sites were open for anyone to comment on, and it was hard to obtain information on who was running the site. However, a few websites provided significant quantitative data for many of the researched insects. 

Still many insect species did not have any trait data available. For example, many beetles and insects inhabiting Asia and Central/America had no data on their size, dispersal, or lifespan. This was discouraging but intriguing, and I want to explore why these species may not have been reported. 


What I learned

I am currently still working on the insect trait search. There are still more methods and challenges to be uncovered, but the lessons I learned now will help make the research process much more manageable. So far, an important lesson I’ve learned is that if the paper discusses what you are researching but does not have exactly what you are looking for, look at the references next. The references may have a paper or two with the necessary information. Another lesson I learned was not to spend too much time on one species. These tips will help make your search for data easier and more efficient. Learning from this experience, I also have a few recommendations to improve studies like these in the future. One thing that would make insect trait research more efficient would be increasing access to books online. Books were often referenced in research papers, but I could not find or access the books and the cited data. Greater online access to books that report insects' information would be helpful for future trait collection efforts.  

Overall, creating a database for insects is a fun and exciting task. Looking at different pictures and data of insects created a greater appreciation for the insects that provide so much to our ecosystems. This internship has given me confidence in my research skills, taught me how to read scientific articles, and expanded my science vocabulary. I am excited to see the complete insect trait database and to use the new skills I gained from researching.