Book Review

Book: Insects, The Hidden Treasures of Mahausakande,

Authors: Jayanthi Edirisinghe, Inoka Karunaratna and Roman Prokhorov

The book starts with a general introduction to the insects who are members (Class: Insecta) of the most diverse group of animals known so far, the Phylum Arthropoda and goes onto document the major orders of insects that were photographed by Roman with concise and interesting text accompanying each. The beetles (Order: Coleoptera) have many photographs that illustrate their range of external appearances, which they deserve being the most diverse of all insects. The text highlights important scientific phenomena shown by insects (among other animals) such as camouflage, mimicry and the “equipment” used by insects for feeding on plants and other animals without being boringly scientific. Towards the end, the authors provide a very important note to the readers. They highlight the difficulty of accurate identification of insects through photographs alone. Insect identification is often a laborious process and requires the use of good quality microscopes and preparation of microscopic slides and the use of taxonomic keys. I find it somewhat irritating when specimens are sent or brought to me by non-entomologists who expect the species name within a few hours, just like they are used to identifying vertebrates of this country. Often we can only arrive at the family name given the lack of studies on Sri Lankan insects. This of course does not apply to the few groups that are relatively well known and have near complete records of their diversity.

I am particularly happy to note that the authors have touched upon a very important and current issue, insects as Invasive Alien Species. Despite the fact that Sri Lanka is yet to officially identify insects under this category, we cannot continue to ignore this ‘downside’ of insects as they threaten our native biodiversity as well as commercially important agriculture. The most recent example of an alien invasive insect species is the notorious Fall Army Worm, the ‘Sena’ caterpillar that created a big stir over its potential impacts on our agriculture.

This book is not only about insects. To me it is as important to focus on their natural habitats which Mahausakande provides through the work of the Ellawala Trust. They have had the foresight to allow their former rubber plantation to regenerate towards being a lowland wet evergreen forest which it had been prior to being cleared for rubber. This act of allowing nature to take its course however slow, towards what it was, is the most important conservation activity that made the publication of this book possible and that is by providing the home for the subjects. For that I believe we should be highly grateful to the late Lyn de Alwis who advised the Ellawala family to allow the forest to restore to a rainforest. The lowland rainforests of this country form a part of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity hotspot which resides in the South western quarter of this country. Any effort to protect and enhance it should be greatly appreciated by all of us who care about the natural environment of this country.

This book has come out at a very opportune time. There is great concern over the decline of insects. A recent (2019) publication that investigated the change in numbers of insects from many parts of the world, grabbed worldwide media attention on its findings. It is said that the decline of the insects is rivaling that of the extinction of the dinosaurs. Unfortunately we Sri Lankans cannot verify if this is true or not for own country as we do not possess the data for such claims. But we know through our own experiences that insects that we used to see in our childhood and young adult hood are either not there anymore or have become very rare.

In the foreword, Nalini Ellawala says that that the publishers hope the following will be achieved through this book.

* Change the general public’s common attitude of revulsion towards insects

* Help us realize that not all insects are pests, destructive and harmful

* Establish the role of insects in an ecosystem

* Make us realize that insects can be exotic, stunning and breathtakingly beautiful

I believe that this book should go quite some way towards achieving the second and fourth objectives. I sincerely hope that Insects of Mahausakanda will contribute very much in the longer term to achieve the first objective. Ellawala says that she got converted from looking at insects as ‘pests, bugs and nuisances’ to seeing them with ‘awe and reverence’ I hope that many Sri Lankans and those overseas will follow suit.

In particular, it is my wish that young people who will have to face the consequences of the actions of the current generations of decision makers and the public will read this book with interest and be motivated to study and conserve insects and their habitats.

As for the third objective, which to me is the most important, can be achieved only through more in depth scientific studies on the insects of Sri Lanka, supported by popular publications on their roles in our world and of course, the concerted actions of all of us who live in this country.

There is a large team of individuals behind this very timely and attractive book and I congratulate all of them, including Dr. Channa Bambaradeniya and Dr. Sriyani Miththapala for their efforts and commitment.

(The writer is a Professor in Zoology and Environment Sciences, Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka)

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