Humanity’s imminent, mysterious extinction

You want something more to fear? Try this on for size.

Across the world, there’s evidence that spider populations are in danger of collapse. A landmark 2019 study in Nature found that the number of spiders, insects, and other arthropods dropped precipitously in Germany from 2008 to 2017, with the total number of different species researchers counted declining by 33 percent and total biomass dropping by 40 percent. Remember the Australian trapdoor spiders I told you about? They’re disappearing, too. After a century of settlers clearing land for crops and raising livestock, they’re becoming harder and harder to find. It’s all but certain that entire species of spiders will go extinct before we even have a chance to discover them, falling victim to industrial agriculture, pesticides, and climate change.

Then there’s this:

Alaska canceled the snow crab fishing season for the first time on Monday, as crab populations mysteriously plummet.

An estimated 1 billion snow crabs suddenly disappeared from the Bering Sea, according to CBS News. The collapse deals a heavy blow to Alaska’s biggest crab industry, and could drive many fishers out of the business.

“Mysteriously.” What a useful word. We send out trawlers to shred the seafloor, we drop traps and snatch away millions of crabs, and we spew garbage and microplastics into the ocean, and then shrug and say it’s a mystery why populations abruptly and catastrophically crash.

Another example: we’re seeing fewer vehicles with dead bugs splattered all over them.

From 1996 to 2017, insect splatters fell by 80 percent on one of the routes Moller regularly travels. On the other, longer stretch, they plunged 97 percent. Conventional measures show similar trends, and more recent observations have seen even sharper declines, Moller told us.

This article takes the somewhat interesting approach of speculating about alternative causes — which is fine, they’re being thorough, but we’re eventually going to have to face the reality that something “mysterious” is also happening to insect populations.

So, given this uncertainty, isn’t it possible that our spookily clean windshields are caused by factors other than rapidly declining insect populations? After all, we still see bugs everywhere, we just don’t seem to mash them with our cars as much.

Many smart people we spoke with, including entomologists and wheat farmers, speculated that maybe the cars have changed, not the bugs. As vehicles become more aerodynamic, the thinking goes, their increasingly efficient airflow whisks the bugs away from the windshield instead of creating head-on splatters.

Um, no. That’s a very silly explanation, as the experts they consult state, but also for obvious reasons. Car grills have not become more aerodynamic, nor have radiators. Also, the cars…or rather trucks people are driving are not particularly sleek. In fact, the trends are for more aggressively blunt, large, flat front ends. A lot of column inches get wasted on this ridiculous hypothesis, which can also be dismissed experimentally.

But we also saw 60 percent declines in insects between 2004 and 2021 in a British study from the Kent Wildlife Trust, which built on a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds effort in which thousands of people used “splatometers” to measure bug splatters on license plates, which aren’t much affected by aerodynamic advances elsewhere.

So then we get another off-the-wall hypothesis. It’s not that insects are in decline, it’s that there are fewer insects splattered by individual cars because we’ve vastly increased the number of cars on the road. I’m losing patience with their efforts to find any explanation other than that we’re poisoning the environment, but OK…being thorough is good.

Americans now drive three times as many miles as they did in 1970, and the explosion of trucks and SUVS means many of us do it in cars with much, much larger windshields. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests acreage of windshields out on the American road has tripled. And that’s probably an underestimate in some places: A large majority of our increase in driving has come on a narrow set of major urban roads, according to our analysis of Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. And as Kenny Cornett of design-software giant Autodesk points out, more traffic means more vehicles riding in each other’s bug-free aerodynamic slipstreams.

So in our little thought experiment, which makes the depressingly accurate assumption that bugs are a finite resource, our bugs-per-windshield metric would have been cut by two-thirds even if the number of bugs had remained constant.

I…I don’t even. This would only work if, instead of sampling a tiny fraction of the extant population with our windshields, we were exhaustively extracting enough bugs with one car to deplete the population for the next car. If that were the case, then maybe tripling the number of cars would be responsible for the population crash. But that’s not the case. The column of insects wiped out by the passage of a car is minuscule compared to the population in the fields, over the lakes, around our homes.

Treating the excessive driving habits of Americans as a rationalization for insect extirpation rather than as part of the problem is troubling, too.

Weirdly, the article concludes that the problem may not be as big as we think because…we have so many cars?

So, simple math hints that the very real ecological disaster of the collapse of insect populations may look even more apocalyptic thanks to the parallel rise of another ecological time bomb: the world’s intensifying love affair with ever more and ever bigger automobiles.

No. This makes no sense. We’ve got other methods of sampling insect populations that are not bug-splatters on cars. When I first moved to the Midwest, a regular feature on the news was when vast clouds of mayflies and midges would hatch out and rise from our lakes to appear on weather radar. Nope, not so much anymore. I would go outside and marvel at the dense masses of flying insects that would cluster around streetlights — nowadays, all summer long, the lights are lonely and shining into an emptiness. I wanted to use spider populations as a proxy for insects, and spiders aren’t leaping in front of cars on the freeway…and see the first article cited, they’re in decline, too.

What’s going on? Oh, I know the answer: it’s something “mysterious”. Problem solved.

Don’t worry, though. We don’t even like bugs, so who cares if they disappear. Then, when they’re gone, the birds and fish and reptiles will fade away, but they’re not our pets, so who cares? Unexpected crop failures…well, we’ll come up with a technology to deal with that. And finally, when humans mysteriously go extinct, there will be no one left to worry about it, and all the windshields on the decaying cars we leave behind will be shiny and clean and their grills will gleam unspattered. No one will be standing around wondering what happened to all the people, and best of all, there will be no one standing around smugly to utter the non-answer, “It’s a mystery.”


  1. Walter Solomon says

    So I guess we’re not worried about the declining bee population anymore. That didn’t even garner a mention.

  2. says

    Given what we’ve observed, my organization can only conclude that humanity’s extinction will be rather suicidal caused by the greedy crapitallist forces and the masses that drink their koolaid. I would rather heed the warnings and act to prevent it.

  3. Akira MacKenzie says

    Capitalists: “Yeah, yeah, you want to stop so-called ‘human extinction,’ but what’s in it for me?”

  4. hemidactylus says

    Aren’t humans supposed to devolve into incurious, dumb, and lazy former capitalists and the subterranean nocturnal furry cannibals (former gig workers) that hunt and eat them? Bon appetit!

  5. says

    @4 hemidactylus, seems you are describing the old H.G. Wells novel and movie version of something similar to what I described as already happening. We see a lot of ‘above ground troglodytes’ around us.

  6. bcw bcw says

    The one saving grace of the WaPo silliness is that the article made and dismissed a series of other weak proposed alternatives before the “it didn’t hit your car because it hit another car first” hypothesis and, assuming most people have an even shorter attention span than me, they never got to the last dumb one and assumed the point was that the data did indeed show there were fewer insects in the air. I read “and windshields have gotten bigger” and went, right so we should be seeing even more bugs hit and stopped reading.

    Of course, the air flow-lifting the bug up argument could be tested by a radiator grill to windshield comparison.

    “So what’s the last thing to go through a bug’s mind when it hits your windshield?”

    “Its butt.”

    …badaba boom.

  7. hemidactylus says

    @5 shermanj
    In the movie Guy Pearce sticks around smitten by an Eloi lady friend and helps them regain knowledge white savior style using a kindly holograph. It would have been gauche to get her killed off and return to your Victorian dinner chat this day and age I suppose. Hollywood needs a happy ending for closure. Nothing unresolved. HG Wells didn’t.

    Oh and a talking telepathic Morlock Jeremy Irons to explain how the movie diverged from the book. Kinda think they lifted the subterranean telepaths idea from the 2nd Planet of the Apes.

    Aside: Guy Pearce travelled backward in time in Memento.

    Wells himself had some not so nice flirtations with eugenics. Michael Coren ripped him apart fairly severely in his The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells. As contrast in Building Cosmopolis
    The Political Thought of H. G. Wells
    John Partington tries to add nuance in how Wells “utopian” views got a bit less extreme over the course of several books. But Coren casts him as kinda a dick in his relationships and even how he approached the Fabian Society.

    I do wonder how his views on Eloi and Morlocks were connected to his views on eugenics. The soft lifestyles of the rich and famous were maybe considered too dysgenic as they lacked true struggle. From Coren’s book it seems his mom being a servant shaped his views on class conflict and even the “upstairs/downstairs” relations of his fictional posthumans.

  8. Akira MacKenzie says

    In the movie Guy Pearce sticks around smitten by an Eloi lady friend…

    Ah yes, the late Yvette Mimieux.

  9. numerobis says

    The cockroaches will wonder about the mystery of the free meals disappearing but they’ll move on to other food sources.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    And by a coincidence, today we learned humanity is in the road to a warming of 2,5°C. Very bad news.
    But the cretins at Fox News will keep smiling and keep lying.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Wossname, that American linguist has said that for this reason the Republican Party is the most dangerous organisation in the world.

  12. StevoR says

    @ ^ birgerjohansson : I’d have said the malignant Murdoch media gets that rank personally.

  13. StevoR says

    PS. birgerjohansson (#12) Did you mean Noam Chomsky or is there another American linguist here?

    @6. bcw bcw : Hilarious. Meh. Technically, I think it works better the other way especially given a head on impact – i.e. what’s the last thing that goes through an insects butt? Albiet its mouthparts are further along and in either case it will depend on the exact species many of which have tails and are often stunningly remarkable and an increasing number of species are rare although few get the conservation attention they deserve. See : (& see also critically endangered and vulnerable insect categories &, of course, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.)

    One – Fonseca’s seed fly – did manage to stop a Trump golf course from going ahead among other things. (See :

    Good article on the Insect apocalpyse here too BTW :

    @1. Walter Solomon : Some of us are. Was personally involved in a volunteer group project planting out flora species that feed a rare local native bee Golden Pea Bee (Trichocolletes venustus) with kids helping and being educated and raising community awareness on that among other things.

    There’s also locally a site right in the centre of the city (Adelaide) with a biodiversity group there that I know of looking after the Chequered Copper Butterfly (Lucia limbaria) which has a fascinating cuckoo-like symbiotic relationship with an ant species with the ants caring for the caterpuillars of that.

  14. StevoR says

    On that local bee and the project to save it see :

    Not one of our Aussie blue-striped bees which are remarkable too but still.

    As for the Chequered Copper Butterfly see :

    & note do click the header thingys for more info. The symbiotic larval attendent ant is Iridomyrmex sp (gracilis and rufoniger groups). in case folks were curious.

    Thinking insect conservation there’s a superb and moving 20 min long mini-doco / animated movie Sticky here :

    On the return from the dead of the Lord Howe island Stick Insect (Dryococelus australis) and the fight to save it and extinction generally .

    Sadly, these efforts are a metaphorical drop in the ocean here.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    StevoR @ 15
    Yes, Chomsky. :)

    BTW I think the whole human race is in a horror movie and is saying “let’s ignore that a serial killer returns to this place and murders 100 victims every now and then…
    Also, let’s go into that abandoned building that has only one exit”.

  16. prairieslug says

    Who needs ghosts and goblins when you have the real horror of mass extinction. My first interest when i was young was entomology, so many species i saw then are gone or rare now. However, is very easy to restore their habitat. To help native insects, kill your lawn, plant and restore native ecosystems where you live and work, and minimize mowing as much as possible.

  17. evodevo says

    Yes… husband and I were commenting on the lack of bug splatter just this summer…granted it was an anomalous cool wet summer, but still… There are hardly any grasshoppers, butterflies/moths, etc. And the butterfly adults look smaller to me..Not very many moths around the lights at night, either. And I think the local bird population had a hard time raising nestlings this year. I saw a couple of dead juvenile flycatchers in the yard a couple weeks ago, with no obvious signs of predation. Of course it could have been bird flu or something, but this was a new occurrence for me, and I have been a casual observer of my yard bird population for years…

  18. hemidactylus says

    @9- Akira MacKenzie
    Ah yes! Thanks for reminding me I haven’t yet seen the 1960 movie. Is it better than the 2002? It’s on my agenda.

  19. Rich Woods says

    @hemidactylus #20:

    Conversely, I wasn’t aware that there was a 2002 remake. I’m entirely happy with the 1960 original and the deliberate — or otherwise — ironies between it and Wells’ novel.

  20. hemidactylus says

    Love bugs tend to be very fond of interstates and I haven’t done much longer distance driving this year, yet I haven’t gotten a bug gut patina coating on the front end of my car this year. YMMV. I am not a fan of love bugs and they fluctuate based on stuff I would be handwaving about to pretend to know, but they could be a canary in the coal mine so to speak.

    Imagine my horror being a Floridian driving in the southern outskirts of Baltimore ca. 1987 with an outbreak of cicadas. They go splat on windshields far more dramatically than love bugs. I wonder if PZ got them at Temple several hours north.

    There’s some weird moth that deposits pods on the outside of my house. I haven’t surveyed to determine if they have ebbed. The invading ants are at bay currently despite my dog flinging kibble far and wide. The carpet beetles admitted defeat. Not a peep. Palmetto bugs are still bugging me. Wall crab spiders are still chumming with me innocently enough. Long jawed orb weavers haunt the yard.

  21. imback says

    hemidactylus #22 wrote:

    Imagine my horror being a Floridian driving in the southern outskirts of Baltimore ca. 1987 with an outbreak of cicadas. They go splat on windshields far more dramatically than love bugs. I wonder if PZ got them at Temple several hours north.

    Yes that would be Brood X of the 17-year cicadas that emerged in 1987, 2004, and 2021. Their map theoretically covers Philadelphia, but they haven’t shown for a few generations now. They certainly did show up in large numbers last year in Maryland.

  22. rockwhisperer says

    Even on our TV news (San Francisco Bay Area), the connection was made between the snow crab die-off and rising sea temps, which have greatly impacted the sex of newborn crabs, driving down breeding stocks. You can’t have a viable breeding population if most members are one sex. Apparently, snow crab aren’t the first to go, king crab preceded them by a few years, which I’ve seen reflected in local prices when they were even available. Governments can manage the heck out of fisheries, and many do–Canada has generally been on top of this longer than the US has–but climate change is what it is, and there our fight is.

    As regards the decline in bug splatters on vehicle fronts, I’ve actually noticed that. I travel across California’s Central Valley a few times a year, and did part of my growing-up there. Not that bug splatters are rare, especially from April to October, but I no longer have to stop at a gas station halfway to scrub the excess splatter from the window. Especially in the last century, that would have been essential to getting home safely if I was driving at night or twilight

    Bug splatters in the suburban Bay Area? Not so you’d notice. Crows are flocking, though, as they always do this time of year, and I really doubt they’re actually targeting my car, but you never know. (I’m a corvid fan, but they don’t care about that, either,)

  23. hemidactylus says

    @23- imback
    I tried finding a detailed CV for PZ to no avail. 1987 might be too early for him to have been at Temple and 2004 too late. That 17 year gap may have spared him from cicada hell. At some time in 1987 I visited family in Trevose PA and don’t recall cicada swarms, but they may have subsided by then.

  24. KG says

    Wells himself had some not so nice flirtations with eugenics. – hemidactylus@8

    That’s certainly true. But The Time Machine does indicate that unlike many of his contemporaries (and ours) he’d grasped that evolution is not intrinsically “progressive”.

  25. snarkrates says

    My wife views our imminent extinction as a positive thing. She is hoping climate change kills us off before we render the planet so poisoned as to be unable to support life. Did I mention that she is an ecologist?

  26. says

    Anecdotally, I’ve seen a difference in bug splatter between the 90s & the aughts (West Central Minnesota, USA).

    Also, in addition to being absurd and unrealistic, the ‘we are seeing less bug splatter because we have enough cars that car impacts are actually having a measurable impact on insect populations’ might be less reassuring than they think.

  27. says

    It’s remarkable how unremarked upon this mass extinction is.
    The global ecosystem has been undergoing a continuous mass extinction event for at least a hundred years, probably more. Species all over the world are declining, and disappearing, their loss weakening other species as prey and pollinators vanish. Climate change is only making things worse. I can’t find any estimates for the point at which everything is dead, but this cannot continue indefinitely. I’ve spoken to people who genuinely believe that human ingenuity can maintain our food crops and domestic animals even after that point, but it seems absurdly optimistic to me.