The Amazon packages, clothing catalogs and credit card applications that flood our mailboxes are sharing space with a more exotic and troubling cargo: bugs. Lots and lots of bugs.
In recent weeks, scientists from around the world have offered glimpses into the Internet-fueled global trade in insects, spiders and scorpions. They have documented offerings of endangered butterflies on Amazon, a rare stick insect on eBay, and hundreds of different spider and scorpion species on websites.
While the findings come from three teams of scientists working independently, the insights echo each other. The emerging picture is a sort of Wild West of invertebrate trading, raising concerns that the largely unregulated market could threaten the survival of species in the wild as entrepreneurs around the world seek to cash in on the thirst for exotic critters.
“It was really astonishing how easily endangered species are openly being sold online,” said Juan Pablo Jordán, a Cornell University doctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolution.
Jordán was originally part of a team of Cornell undergraduates who spent two months in late 2019 scanning the Internet for sales of insects and spiders. They focused on species tagged by international or U.S. conservation organizations—the “Red List” of endangered species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); the U.S. Endangered Species Act list; and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty governing wildlife sales.
The students found 79 listed species for sale, ranging from tarantulas to beetles. Of the 364 insects and arachnids (such as spiders) reported as “critically endangered” by the IUCN, seven species were being sold online, with prices as high as $2,000 for a black beetle found only on a mountain in the Azores islands off the coast of West Africa. Of the 191 insects and spiders on the U.S. endangered species list, 19 were being openly advertised online, including 11 tarantula species. They even found several sites selling dead Luzon peacock swallowtail butterflies, whose sale is banned worldwide, the scientists reported in Global Ecology and Conservation.
While the sale of protected species is troubling, it’s also a tiny slice of the overall picture. A separate group of scientists found 1,264 species of spiders and scorpions advertised on websites. Yet the CITES regulations cover just 30 of these species. In many cases, little is known about the size of a species’ population. The IUCN has evaluated fewer than 1% of arachnid species to determine if they are at risk.
Given the shortcomings, “few species have the data needed for adequate assessments, highlighting that legality and sustainability cannot be conflated,” the authors wrote last week in Communications Biology.
Overall, the number of arachnids changing hands number in the millions, with two-thirds taken from the wild. Tarantulas proved the most popular, with more than 400 of the roughly 1,000 known species advertised for sale, the researchers found. There were signs that much of this is happening beneath the regulatory radar. International and U.S. databases tracking overseas shipments of live organisms only captured around a quarter of the species the scientists found for sale.
The researchers pointed to the species’ small size and ability to survive shipping through the mail as some of the reasons why the trade has flourished while escaping the attention of regulators.
Tackling the problem to ensure such trafficking doesn’t harm species “would require an entirely different approach to the trade in wildlife,” according to the researchers, one in which markets are monitored by regulators and the origin of captive-bred creatures is verified.
“With over 1200 species intrade(sic), in addition to potential undescribed species we need to do better at protecting wildlife or(sic) all sizes,” Alice Hughes, a biologist at the University of Hong Kong who was part of the research, wrote on Twitter.
Some researchers are suggesting harnessing the collectors as one way to fill information gaps. That could include people collecting praying mantis insects, according to survey results released last week in the Journal of Orthoptera Research.
People in the global trade mantis trade generally ranging in age from 19 to 30, are paying $30 and up for an insect, according to the survey of more than 180 collectors in 28 countries.
Some people reported finding them in the wild. Others bought them, even though a quarter of the people reported having doubts about whether the seller had proper permits or was “transparent” about the species, the researchers
Still, the study authors held out hope there could be some benefit from the trade. With so little known about these mantis species, hobbyists could help shed some light on what’s happening to the insects. “Hobbyists and pet insect enthusiasts are producing and sharing a huge quantity of observations on the biology and ecology of hundreds of species,” they wrote. “Strengthening the dialogue between them, promoting a white market over a black one, may be a crucial help for the conservation of these insects.”
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Losey, et. al. “Insects and spiders on the web: Monitoring and mitigating online exploitation of species and services.” Global Ecology and Conservation. April 2, 2022.
Marshall, et. al. “Searching the web builds fuller picture of arachnid trade.” Communications Biology. May 19, 2022.
Battiston, et. al. “The pet mantis market: a first overview on the praying mantis international trade.” Journal of Orthoptera Research. May 19, 2022.