Max Planck researchers support referendum on species diversity

The scientists believe that the relevant legislative amendments could halt the disappearance of insects and birds in Bavaria

January 31, 2019

Germany has lost the majority of its insects over the past 30 years. Over half of all wild bee species are either endangered or have already gone extinct. This downward trend is also affecting birds: only about half the number of birds are alive today as there were at the end of the 1980s. That is why a referendum on changes to the Bavarian environmental protection laws will be held in Bavaria between the 31st of January and the 13th of February. According to researchers at the Max Planck Institute, the legal reforms at issue could prevent further reductions in Bavaria's flora and fauna. 'With the worldwide loss of animal and plant species, countless adaptations created by evolution over millions of years are disappearing. We are losing the evolutionary memory of our planet. Many species are already on the verge of extinction. This is why we must act quickly if we are to stop the extinction of species,' says Max Planck President Martin Stratmann.

As is the case in many European regions, the population of many insect groups in Bavaria have plummeted drastically over the past few decades, even in protected areas. In the Keilberg Nature Reserve near Regensburg, for example, 39 per cent of butterfly species have vanished during the past 200 years, half of them since 2010 alone. Yet it is not only species diversity that is shrinking, but also the number of actual individuals within a given species: the number of flying insects in German nature reserves today, for instance, is just a quarter of what it was in 1989.

Species extinction has now reached such proportions that scientists fear the collapse of entire eco systems. “In the past”, warns Martin Wikelski, a behavioural scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, “coal miners would take canaries down into the mine shafts as a means of detecting, and therefore, protecting themselves against lethal gasses. Bees are the modern equivalent of these canaries”, he continues: “The massive crash in bee populations shows that something is going very wrong!”.

Insects not only play a crucial role as pollinators for many plant species, they also recycle enormous quantities of organic material, thus helping to eliminate dead plants and animal cadavers. Moreover, they also serve as an essential source of nutrition and protein for many animals, which is why insect extinction is also one of the important reasons for the significant decline in many bird species in Germany. “Dramatic population shrinkage can also be observed among many bird species”, says Manfred Gahr, a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, adding that: “even many previously common species are now rarely seen or have vanished completely. There are many reasons for this, but the widespread use of pesticides, countryside clearance in the wake of the disappearance of small-scale agricultural operations and increasing land consumption all contribute significantly to this development”.

Practicable measures for more biodiversity

This is why the scientists have come out in support of the referendum on species diversity. From the 31st of January to the 13th of February, eligible voters will be able to make their voices heard in town halls throughout the region to demand changes to the Bavarian environmental protection legislation. According to the researchers, the proposed changes would be easy to implement and could at least prevent further species loss. “The referendum is not about exaggerated demands but rather it addresses proposals for practicable measures”, explains Peter Berthold, an ornithologist and former Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell. “Whilst implementing environmentally-friendly agricultural practices throughout at least 20 per cent of the available land by 2025 would not guarantee the level of species diversity necessary for a stable ecosystem, it would curb the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Therefore, all citizens ought to be supporting the referendum”.

Manfred Gahr agrees: “we need to rethink everything: we need more environmentally-friendly agriculture, more wildlife corridors and, ultimately, be prepared to accept a lower standard of living. That's why I support the referendum on biodiversity”. And, according to Martin Wikelski: “if we fail to take action right now, we might well suffer the same fate as those coal miners who ignored their canaries!”

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