The world’s natural environment is the most important and irreplaceable resource we have. Our minds may cast to dreams of a big, blue, and beautiful plastic-free ocean, or lush rainforests full of mammals no longer under threat from habitat loss – all really significant things! But what about the importance of biodiversity, and protecting land and all the mini ecosystems it contains for insects native to New Zealand? Some scientists believe if insects were to disappear from the earth, all life on earth would end 50 years later. We rely on these not so popular specimens for our own longevity – so who is speaking up for these invertebrates?

Ben Goodwin is Auckland Zoo’s very own insect advocate and a lifelong zealous environmentalist. In his nine years at the zoo, Ben has witnessed the massive shift Auckland Zoo has made in building an impressive collection of ectotherms, and also observed conservationists making more of an effort to include invertebrates in their important work. But still, more must be done.

Ben has always fostered an interest in all animals and the natural world. Most kids are fascinated by insects, but grow out of it either due to one fear-inducing incident, or perhaps it’s a learnt fear from adults. Ben says he is lucky he never grew out of his interests, and is thankful his parents were so encouraging.

As an ectotherm keeper at Auckland Zoo, it’s largely about caring for, managing and maintaining the environment within each enclosure. Once this is achieved the animals do a pretty good job of looking after themselves – with some food, water and medical intervention if needed.

“Most people understand this with keeping fish - you look after its environment, the aquarium, before the fish itself. This mentality is less-often adopted for other animals, even though it can often be just as applicable,” Ben said.

Ben’s job involves maintaining the environment of the animals under his care: checking temperatures, humidity, moisture levels of the substrates, water quality, it’s all about “checking, checking, checking again, and adjusting where required”. This isn’t an easy task, and can mean trying to replicate spaces from other parts of the world, or from other climatic zones in New Zealand. Something as simple as a power outage can be a cause for concern, and require prompt attention. And how do you know something might be wrong with an animal the size of your thumb, that displays little to no emotion? Ectotherms’ behaviours can be very subtle, so Ben needs to recognise what the subtle cues are that might mean something is wrong, and learn about all their complex and understated behaviours.

Working with insects is the major part of why I’m here. Most insects are not well-studied, especially in terms of their husbandry, so it feels like I’m taking part in some pioneering work. Developing husbandry for a lesser known species can be used for significant conservation work, not just for that species but as an analogue for others

Ben Goodwin, Ectotherms keeper at Auckland Zoo

“Working with insects is the major part of why I’m here. Most insects are not well-studied, especially in terms of their husbandry, so it feels like I’m taking part in some pioneering work. Developing husbandry for a lesser known species can be used for significant conservation work, not just for that species but as an analogue for others.”

Conservation work is what Ben lives and breathes. Involved in the wētāpunga breed for release programme since 2012, Ben considers it a pet project of his and is proud of the significant contribution it has made to the species.

Wētāpunga were widely distributed across the northern areas of New Zealand’s North Island prior to European arrival. Introduced predators almost caused their extinction, leaving only one natural wētāpunga population on Te Hauturu-o-Toi (Little Barrier Island). There they were threatened by pacific rats (Kiore), which were eradicated by the Department of Conservation (DOC) in 2000. Without these predators the species is now recovering, and as safe and secure as possible. Being restricted to one island is, however, risky. A natural event such as a fire, drought or disease could wipe out the entire species.

Insects are susceptible to fluctuations in their numbers as their survival is so intertwined with their environment. If a natural event were to cause a local extinction of a species, that species would then usually reinvade from elsewhere once the environment becomes suitable again. With all wētāpunga stuck on one island, there are no other populations that could reinvade in the case of a disaster, leaving the only naturally existing population at risk. Auckland Zoo and DOC are mitigating this risk with a captive breeding programme, which also involves translocating wētāpunga to other suitable islands. The goal is to establish new populations, re-expand their range and alleviate the risk of extinction.

As a mammal ourselves, we easily empathise with other mammals, but not so much with insects. The further you get from a human, the harder it is to help people make that connection. But Ben strongly believes everything is deserving of conservation efforts, funding, and passionate supporters.

“It’s the challenge I’ve been dealing with my entire career, trying to get people excited about more obscure animals, or things that aren’t getting the attention they deserve.”

The other challenge is that so many insects are understudied, so where do you even start when trying to save something you know so little about? What do they eat? Where to they live? How do they breed? What are their major threats? And how many people consider a career in entomology (the study of insects)? Not enough, Ben tells us.

It’s not all doom and gloom, there is work being done, but as Ben tells us if you want to help, the most bang for your buck involves protecting land and therefore habitat. If you protect an area, you are protecting everything in it.

“When you look at the foundations of an ecosystem, or a natural environment, taking something out of it you will put that environment at risk, and it’s not always possible to put that one piece somewhere else and hope for its survival.”

Ben says when you protect land you don’t have to understand every miniscule function of its complex ecosystem, but if you were to attempt to duplicate that land, replicating those exact ecosystems is near impossible. Ben’s final words? Let’s just not take that risk!

To learn more about the amazing insects Ben takes care of and become an insect advocate like Ben, visit one of our encounters in the Te Wao Nui Night, or Te Papa and Weta Workshop’s exhibition Bug Lab. You can also support programmes like the wētāpunga breed for release by visiting Auckland Zoo and donating to the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund