Chap 7

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In a survey of institutions in the vicinity of the capital city of. Malaysia, 25% of 387 entomology dissertations and articles written over the last decade were.




Shawn Cheng & 2Laurence G. Kirton

ABSTRACT Malaysia’s commitment to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity has provided fresh impetus for the documentation of the country’s flora and fauna. Insects greatly outnumber other major lifegroups in terms of diversity and numbers, but an assessment of the degree to which the biodiversity and taxonomy of insects have been researched in Malaysia indicates that there are still great needs. In a survey of institutions in the vicinity of the capital city of Malaysia, 25% of 387 entomology dissertations and articles written over the last decade were on the subject of insect diversity, with many of the studies being of the numerical kind, while only 4% were on taxonomy and systematics – the science of describing biological diversity. In addition, the taxonomy and diversity of only a few major insect orders, such as Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Isoptera (termites) and Phasmida (stick insects), have been relatively well studied in Malaysia. Little is known of other important insect orders, such as Coleoptera (beetles), Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants), Diptera (flies) and Hemiptera (bugs). We argue that if any effective inventory of Malaysia’s insect fauna is to take place, sustained interest and funding needs to be devoted to the study of their diversity and taxonomy.

INTRODUCTION Biodiversity is often broadly defined as the different forms of plants, animals and microorganisms that exist, the levels at which they occur (e.g., species, population and ecosystem levels) and the different ways in which organisms, climate and geology combine to form functioning ecosystems. Approximately 1.8 million living species have been named and described and, of these, one million are insects (May 2002). It has also been estimated that invertebrates represent more than 90% of the planet’s 10 million or so animal species (Erwin 1983, Wilson 1992). Insects are ubiquitous in the environment and play important roles in maintaining the stability of ecosystems by being part of the food chain, mediating decomposition processes and through various ecological interactions, such as pollination, predation and herbivory. Large-scale anthropogenic activities such as forest clear-cutting extirpate insect species and destroy ecosystem dynamics and interactions that have been in place for millennia. Forest Research Institute Malaysia, 52109 Kepong, Selangor, Malaysia. [email protected]; [email protected]



In view of the rapid decline of forested areas in the world, world leaders agreed to promote the sustainable use and conservation of natural resources, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Biodiversity Treaty, an important document stemming from the conference in Rio, emphasised the importance of countries accepting the responsibility for conserving biological diversity and promoting their use in a sustainable manner. Malaysia ratified the treaty in 1994, a year after the Treaty came into force. At the international conference, “Biodiversity: Science and Governance,” held in Paris in 2005, the Malaysian premier, Dato Seri’ Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, highlighted the government’s efforts to protect and conserve the environment through the actions and coordination of the National Council on Biodiversity and Technology and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. A current project, initiated by the Prime Minister, aims to document Malaysia’s biodiversity with the objective of producing a national ‘red data book’ on endangered animal and plant species in the country, their distributions and the levels of threat they face (Koh 2005; Cyranoski 2005). In view of this plan to document Malaysia’s biodiversity, there is a need to assess the current status of insect diversity research and the level of information available on major insect groups in Peninsular Malaysia. In this paper, we examine current trends in entomological research by analysing the undergraduate and postgraduate dissertation topics of students over the last decade in a few universities in and around the Klang Valley of Peninsular Malaysia, namely, University of Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia. In addition, we examined both entomological dissertations and articles stemming from research by the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) in the Pasoh Field Station from 1964 to 1999. FRIM was included in the survey because it is the primary research institution that conducts research on diversity and conservation in Peninsular Malaysia. Although there are limitations to the data obtained – for example, not all Malaysian universities or all years were included in the census – the results of this survey are still expected to give a good indication of the pattern of entomological research in Peninsular Malaysia. In addition to conducting this survey, we also examined the availability of taxonomic information on several well-known insect orders in Peninsular Malaysia.

TRENDS IN RELATION TO FIELDS OF RESEARCH The number of entomological dissertations and articles from each of the institutions surveyed, and the number on insect diversity, is shown in Table 1. A total of 387 entomology dissertations and articles were examined. About 25% of these were on the subject of insect diversity; with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia contributing 75% of all studies on insect diversity. Figure 1 shows the frequency of dissertations and articles on different topics of entomological research for the combined dataset of the survey, some of which covered more than one research area. Insect control was the most heavily researched area, and accounted for 31% of all entomological research. Insect diversity was the next most studied subject and accounted for close to 26% of all reported entomological work. Biological and ecological research, which was a popular area of research among undergraduates, contributed 37% of all documented work. Insect taxonomy, accounted for a mere 4% of all entomological studies. Although the survey did not cover taxonomic work published in local and international journals by staff of the various universities surveyed, this low figure is probably still reflective of the shortage of taxonomic research on insects in Malaysia.



Table 1. Numbers of research dissertations and articles on entomology and insect diversity (in parentheses) in the institutions surveyed. Institutions



Years examined

No. of dissertations / articles

Institute of Biological Science


83 (21)

Universiti Putra Malaysia

Forestry & Agriculture Faculties


144 (2)

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

School of Bioscience


128 (75)


32 (2)


387 (100)

Universities: Universiti Malaya

Institutes: Forest Research Institute Malaysia†

All counts for universities were based on dissertations. For the Forest Research Institute Malaysia, counts were based on both dissertations and scientific articles from projects conducted in the Pasoh Field Station’s 50-hectare plot (Soepadmo et al. 2000). *

C o n tr o l

D ive rsity

F i e ld o f s t u d y

Bi o lo gy

E co l o gy

T a xo n o m y

En vi ro n m e n ta l m o n ito rin g

B io in fo r m a tic s

Fo r e n sics

B ioc h e m is try









N u m b e r o f d i s s e rt a ti o n s / a r tic le s

Fig. 1. Numbers of dissertations/articles written on different entomological research areas in the institutions surveyed. In addition to the areas of entomological research mentioned above, there are also new and emerging areas of entomological research, such as environmental monitoring using insects as indicator species, bioinformatics, forensics and insect biochemistry. Together, they contributed to a very small number (eight) of the 387 dissertations, reports and articles written, among the four institutions surveyed.



TRENDS IN RELATION TO INSECT ORDERS STUDIED Figure 2 shows the number of dissertations/articles written on the different insect groups in the four institutions surveyed. About 15 insect orders have been the subject of studies. They represent slightly less than half of all recognised insect orders. The most researched insect order was Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), while Neuroptera, Plecoptera, Thysanura and Collembola were the least studied groups. Other orders that were the focus of much entomological research were Coleoptera, Hymenoptera, Homoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera, Orthoptera and Isoptera, in decreasing frequency. To some extent, the level of research on the different orders reflects the size of the order, for example, Coleoptera and Hymenoptera are the largest and second largest insect orders, respectively. It also reflects their economic importance in agriculture and forestry, as pests (e.g., many Coleoptera and Hemiptera) or as beneficial insects (e.g., Hymenoptera). There were also many entomological dissertations / articles written that were not on any specific insect order; many were comparative studies on the composition of invertebrate communities in natural and disturbed environments. G e n e ra l L e p id o p te r a C o le o p te r a H ym e n o p te r a

In s e c t o r d e r

H o m o p te r a D ip te r a H e m ip te r a O rt h o p te r a I s o p te r a Od o n a ta N e u ro p te r a Ple co p te r a C o lle m b o la A c a rin a 0











N o . o f d is s e r ta tio n s / a r ti c le s

Fig. 2. Numbers of dissertations / articles written on different insect orders in the institutions surveyed. The category, ‘General,’ refers to dissertations / articles that did not specify a specific insect order, or that were about invertebrate or insect communities in general. Dissertations / articles on Acarina (mites) are included for comparison.

AVAILABILITY OF TAXONOMIC INFORMATION ON THE DIFFERENT INSECT ORDERS The level of taxonomic information available on several insect orders in Peninsular Malaysia is compared against the size of the different orders in Table 2. The order Coleoptera (beetles) is well-known as the most diverse and numerous in the animal kingdom. However, there is a



great void of information on Coleoptera in Malaysia. Although some groups have been relatively well-studied (e.g., Chrysomelidae), on the whole there is very little documentation of the taxonomy of most groups of beetles. Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) is another vastly diverse group, but it has been relatively well-studied in Peninsular Malaysia. Moths are much more diverse than butterflies, and although there are several good monographs on them, much more work is needed to document their diversity in Peninsular Malaysia as well as in Sabah and Sarawak. The Isoptera (termites) and Phasmida (stick insects) are two other relatively well-studied groups in Peninsular Malaysia, although many unresolved taxonomic problems are recognised to exist the Isoptera (Tho 1992). Table 2. Comparison of relative species diversity and the level of taxonomic information available for some insect orders occurring in Peninsular Malaysia. Order

Relative size*

Availability of taxonomic information

Monographs available

1. 2.

Coleoptera Lepidoptera

********** ********

Very low High

3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

Hymenoptera Diptera Hemiptera Homoptera Orthoptera Collembola Isoptera Phasmida

****** ***** **** *** *** ** ** *

Very low Very low Very low Very low Very low Very low Moderate High


Very low

Butterflies: Fleming (1983), Corbet & Pendlebury (1992); Moths: Holloway (1976)†, Barlow (1982) Tho (1992) Brock (1999), Seow-Choen (2000) -

11. Thysanura

Relative size of the order is based on figures given in Romoser & Stoffolano (1998). In addition, there is a further series of publications on the moths of Borneo by Holloway (1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001). Many parts of this series are also available on the World Wide Web ( Although based on specimens from Borneo, Holloway’s work is a useful reference for Peninsular Malaysia as well. * †

Orders that have been relatively well studied are, to some extent, those that have attractive species (e.g., butterflies, moths and stick insects) or that have some importance in agriculture and forestry (e.g., termites). It is also worth noting that a number of monographs were authored by individuals who were not entomologists by profession, but who pursued the study of insects privately (e.g., the monographs on butterflies and stick insects). In spite of its large number of species, many of which are beneficial insects, taxonomic information on the Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) in Peninsular Malaysia is still very lacking. Other relatively large groups that have been little studied are the Diptera, Hemiptera, Homoptera, and Orthoptera. Many groups of insects for which taxonomic information is still lacking are important in ecosystem functions such as pollination, predation, phytophagy and the promotion of soil stability.



CURRENT AND FUTURE NEEDS FOR INSECT DIVERSITY RESEARCH IN MALAYSIA As in most other countries, economically important insect pest species have been an important area of research in Malaysia. Research has often been driven by the need to develop management strategies for such pest species, thus, studies on insect control were highest in frequency in the institutions surveyed. Insect diversity studies ranked second in number. However, many utilised indices of diversity (e.g., Simpson’s D & E and the Shannon diversity index) to measure biodiversity richness (or poorness). In many such studies, specimens are sorted based on phenotypes (termed “recognisable taxonomic units”) to obtain diversity indices for different study areas. While this method allows for the comparison of animal or plant richness, it does little to enable the understanding of biological and ecological systems. At the heart of understanding biological and ecological systems in an ecosystem is the understanding of the species that make up the diversity of the ecosystem, and the interactions of these species with other each other and with their environment. Such an understanding is only made possible through taxonomic work that enables us to identify species and provides a foundation upon which we can build on our knowledge of their biology, behaviour and ecological functions. In spite of this, taxonomic studies were poorly represented in the institutions surveyed, ranking last in number among mainstream areas of research such as diversity, ecology and biology. The few studies on insect taxonomy that have been conducted in the country have primarily been on specific insect groups. Many insect groups have been poorly researched. The Hymenoptera, Diptera and Hemiptera, to name a few, are taxonomically diverse groups, yet there are no monographs on these insect groups in Malaysia. The Collembola and Thysanura are also poorly researched insect groups. Although small and rarely noticed, they are important in terrestrial ecosystems. Collembolans, for example, help in decomposition and nutrient cycling in the soil, while thrips are thought to be important pollinators of dipterocarp trees. Taxonomists shoulder the responsibility of documenting organic diversity, and their skills are also needed in many ecological studies. In addition to their role in documenting species, taxonomists also usually ensure the proper curation and maintenance of valuable reference collections, as well as work on the systematics of the groups of organisms they study. The field of systematics, which is an extension of taxonomy, analyses relationships between organisms and discusses origins or causes of diversity. Research on systematics can often indirectly provide more information on the biological and ecological interactions of species than studies on diversity, yet it has rarely been pursued as a subject of research in the institutions surveyed. The dearth of taxonomic or systematic studies on insects is a serious cause for worry; our limited capacity to identify insects inadvertently limits our capacity to document at least three quarters of our country’s biological diversity.

CONCLUSION The dearth of taxonomic information on the majority of insect orders in Peninsular Malaysia is a matter of great concern, because one of the prerequisites in any effort to conserve species is that they need to be identified and described. Most insect orders remain poorly studied in



Peninsular Malaysia. There is a great need for taxonomic and systematic studies on insects in Malaysia, especially on many of the less popular insect groups. In addition, taxonomists and systematists need to be provided with adequate funds and incentives that will enable them to conduct their research, purchase relevant equipment and discuss and present their work. At the administrative and political level, there needs to be sustained interest and commitment to funding to ensure that insect diversity is properly documented and described. The success of Malaysia’s initiative to inventorise its biodiversity greatly depends on sustained political will.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS We wish to thank Ms. Sheena Jeremiah and Mr. Jeyakumar for their assistance in data collection. Our thanks also go to the custodians of the various resource centres at Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Pertanian Malaysia for permission to use their reference libraries.

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