Bumblebees, beetles and butterflies are at greater risk of extinction than lions and tigers, according to a global study by the Zoological Society of London.
The biggest study of invertebrates ever conducted found that one in five is at risk of dying out. This can affect humans by threatening crops and food supplies.
Prof Jonathan Baillie, the director of conservation at the Zoological Society, said insects, slugs and snails may not be as glamorous as lions or dolphins but are just as important to providing the food we eat and the countryside we love.
“These critters form the basis of many of the essential benefits that nature provides; earthworms recycle waste nutrients, coral reefs support a myriad of life forms and bees help pollinate crops,” he said. “If they disappear, humans could soon follow.”
In Britain, critically endangered invertebrates include species of bumblebee that keep the countryside full of flowers and freshwater pearl mussels that filter the water in our rivers. The society blamed pollution, loss of habitat and climate change for killing off invertebrates and urged the public to take action by demanding that food is farmed in a more sustainable way and growing insect-friendly plants in their garden.
Previous international studies have focused on groups of animals such as mammals and birds. As invertebrates make up 97 per cent of species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the UN body in charge of ensuring that animals do not become extinct, asked the society to lead a new study. More than 12,000 species, from giant squid to midges, were studied around the world. There are 1.5 million known invertebrates, although eight million species are thought to exist even if not yet discovered.