Reuters 15-JUN-98 By Steve Weatherbe
Canadian rain forest home to previously undiscovered insects
VICTORIA, British Columbia, June 16 (Reuters) - Researchers who spent years clambering along rope catwalks high above the ground in a Canadian rainforest claim the dense canopy is home to hundreds of previously unknown insects.
The findings could add new fuel to the fight over whether to protect the old-growth forests of coastal British Columbia, a political battle currently focused on the impact of logging on the habitat of large animals.
Researchers collected 1.2 million individual insects in traps set 200 feet (60 metres) above the ground in the Carmanah Valley of Vancouver Island, according to University of Victoria entomologist Neville Winchester.
Based on the preliminary results from the insects already sent to experts around the world, Winchester believes his team will have collected more than 15,000 distinct species of insects -- including 300 that were previously unknown to scientists.
``A huge component are undescribed and unknown. There's enough there to keep half a dozen entomologists going for a lifetime,'' Winchester said.
THICK CANOPY EVEN HAS LAYER OF SOIL The insects were caught in traps set up in five Sitka spruce trees. The researchers moved between the trees using catwalks that consisted of two ropes for handholds and one for walking.
Traps uncovered previously unknown beetles, flies, wasps and spiders. ``Practically every group we look at we'll find a new species that have never been identified before,'' biologist Richard Ring said.
They also discovered previously known insect species that were not thought to live in coastal Canada, including a tiny brown and hairy tarantula-related spider that preys on other insects, Ring said.
The researchers believe the thickness of the canopy has promoted a wide diversity of insect life by making it difficult for birds to hunt them.
In some areas, the old-growth trees have been standing undisturbed for so long that a layer of soil has even formed in the canopy from decomposing branches, mosses and dirt blown up from the ground.
``It's a well-developed soil and in that are the roots of many plants growing on the branches. Mosses and lichens, a whole array of organisms you normally associate with a soil,'' Ring said.
REPLANTING TREES WILL NOT SAVE CANOPY The researchers worry the insects' canopy protection could soon be eliminated by logging that is expected to consume the remainder of British Columbia's old-growth rainforests within the next 30 years.
Winchester says the current conditions took hundreds of years to create and he is critical of the province's current logging policy that would allow the rainforests to be harvested every 60 years.
``We can replant and grow trees ... what we can't replace is the canopy, its historic evolution. You will lose the species resident there,'' Winchester said.
``Foresters think in terms of 60 to 100 years. The age of the trees is really immaterial. The rainforest itself has had 10,000 years to evolve into its present form,'' he said.
Canada's rainforests are already the focus of a battle between loggers and environmentalists, but much of the debate has been on the fate of its larger wildlife residents.
In its bid to organise an international boycott of lumber cut from British Columbia's old-growth forests, Greenpeace has even attempted to have one coastal section of the province renamed as ``The Great Bear Rainforest.''
CANOPY MAY INCLUDE IMPORTANT INSECT PREDATORS Provincial Environment Minister Kathy McGregor admitted she was unaware of the insect research -- even though it was partly funded by the province's Ministry of Forests.
``Clearly it indicates the interrelatedness of an ecosystem and the importance of us paying attention to all living things in an ecosystem,'' McGregor said.
Winchester argues there are also practical reasons to protect the rainforests' insect population because it includes predators which help control insects that if left unchecked would damage valuable timberlands.
The researchers have moved their traps and catwalks from the Carmanah Valley to two other Vancouver Island rainforests with slightly different ecological conditions, but are making similar findings, according to Ring.
``We're finding a lot of overlap in our results, and the lessons we learned in Carmanah are being repeated in other forest types,'' Ring said.
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