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"The services that biodiversity provides us for free would be unaffordable with money."

Xavier Bellés, insect expert of the high school of Evolutionary Biology of UPF, will give the IV Albareda Lecture at the School of Sciences.

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Xavier Bellés
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13/04/18 10:00 Laura Juampérez

Next Thursday, April 19, Xavier Bellés -researcher of the high school of Evolutionary Biology at Pompeu Fabra University - will give the IV Albareda Lecture, organized by the Chair Timac Agro University of Navarra and whose purpose is to bring leading scientists to campus .

Professor Belles is an expert in Entomology, member of the Institut d'Estudis Catalans, of the Real Academia de Ciencias y Artes de Barcelona and of the Real Academia de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales. In addition, he has been named Honorary Member of the Spanish Society of Evolutionary Biology and received the award of Scientific Literature of the Fundació Catalana per a la Recerca.

On the occasion of his lecture, Belles tells in this interview the status of biodiversity in general on the planet and, in particular, among insects: one of the most important animal groups, biodiverse and with a transcendental role in the maintenance of the environment. In the fight to conserve diversity, the expert also highlights the role of institutions such as science museums, "tool of great value in raising awareness among the general public, starting with children, that biodiversity is important".

- As an entomologist, what status, from the point of view of diversity conservation, would you say are the insects on our Planet?
In general, the status is bad. Largely because there are many known insect species (approximately one million described species), and many more to be known(between 6 and 30 million species yet to be discovered), which means that there are many species to be taken care of. In addition, insects are not a group that the general public considers (wrongly, as they render great services) very worthy of conservation, niemblematic, as whales or rhinoceroses may be.

- Why have you been particularly interested in the phenomenon of metamorphosis?
I have been interested in it since I was a child because of its marvelous nature (isn't it marvelous that a worm transforms into a butterfly?). Then for the intricacies of the mechanisms that govern this transformation. Moreover, almost 70% of the current animal species are insects that undergo complete metamorphosis. Thus, the evolutionary innovation of metamorphosis has contributed decisively to the rich biodiversity we have.

- According to the available data , will it happen with insects, as with plants, etc., that some species will disappear before we even know they have existed?
Without a doubt. It is already happening. Areas of high overall diversity (in the Amazon rainforest, in Madagascar, in Southeast Asia) that are little known in terms of biodiversity, containing insect species yet to be discovered, are being destroyed.

- Some insects, such as bees, are already sounding the alarm with worrying data declines in their communities...
The data of dramatic population declines are objective data . Bees are highly efficient pollinators. If their populations decline, many crops will suffer; and so will we, as consumers of those crops.

- This diverse group (insects) already existed at the same time as the dinosaurs and did not disappear after their extinction. Why?
They had many more survival resources than the dinosaurs, which, despite their large size (or to a large extent because of it), were very vulnerable.

- Will they also be able to survive man if he continues in his current self-destructive spiral?
Man is the species that has the most resources for survival, since in addition to those provided by biological evolution, there are those that have come to him through cultural evolution, which is much faster. It would possibly endure a strong biodiversity crisis, with the serious consequences of loss of ecosystemic efficiency. However, if this happens, it will live much worse.

- The University of Navarra is promoting the project of the Science Museum, with the goal to research, conserve and communicate a collection of more than one and a half million specimens collected during 50 years of research of the department of Zoology and the Herbarium. What role do you consider the Science Museums have today to disseminate and conserve the biodiversity of the Planet?
Museums today have a very important role to play. If we want to protect biodiversity, we must begin by raising awareness among the general public, starting with children. Schools and the family environment are crucial in this task, but museums represent a very valuable support tool .

- What would you say are the great enemies today for the maintenance of species biodiversity on the planet?
I would speak of five major enemies: the destruction of habitats (including the effects of climate change), the introduction of invasive species (which can displace and even eliminate native species), pollution (dumping that is lethal to life), the growth of the human population (which has already reached 7.5 billion people), and overfishing and overfishing (especially of marine species). All of these are the result of human action.

To convince the incredulous that biodiversity is important, there are arguments of all kinds subject. Perhaps the easiest to understand are the economic ones, since the services that biodiversity provides us for free would be unaffordable with money, such as pollination (more than 70% of edible plants are pollinated by insects and other animals of biodiversity), water and air purification, etc. But we must not give up ethical arguments (we have no right to extinguish species) and aesthetic arguments (the world would be much uglier and duller if the issue of species that inhabit it were to fall dramatically).

There is still time to halt this decline. As Edward Wilson says in his latest book "Half a Planet", if we managed to preserve 50% of the Earth, we would safeguard 80% of our current biodiversity.