Is there a MUCH bigger question we should be asking ourselves when we commit to protecting ecosystems, plants, and animals? Maybe it’s not just a matter of saving the whales or polar bears for our grandchildren.
Maybe we are saving ourselves when we save apex predators!
Let’s take a look at a counter-intuitive concept that is critical for all of us to understand that’s beginning to make gains around the world!
Think of every habitat on earth (forest, swamp, valley, tundra or prairie) like a community containing people who are each doing a different job. Each of these jobs has a key part in supporting a healthy quality of life in that town.
Now, what if you remove a key player in the town? Not necessarily the most powerful or popular person, but something that sets other things in motion. Perhaps the lone, good-quality clothing store closes? Or the owner of a timeless bakery moves the business to a bigger city, or the beloved local doctor retires.
What happens next is not that easy to predict or even point to at first glance. But if we pause to think about it, we can imagine a cascade of events that one major loss sets into motion.
Good systems are just that: systems. They are far more than the sum of the individual parts.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” — John Muir
Turns out the same is true in our environment.
Apex Predators Need Some Advocates
You might be surprised to learn that up until 1963 no one thought that preditors had any role in regulating ecosystems. With that mentality, almost all the world’s apex predators have been hunted to near extinction at some point. But those days are long gone and humans are getting better at the finding ways to co-exist with nature.
Most importantly, we are now starting to realize that when we remove an apex predator, ecosystems begin to break down in ways that eventually affect us too.
This is a bit more complex and I’ll share an enlightening video to get us started. Here’s the always concise but compelling YouTube channel called Seeker. They take us from our backyard to the farthest reaches of the universe and back again. Here’s why we should love apex predators:
Ok… that gives us a base to start this discovery process.
If you want to take a great little detour right now to understand more about that topic she mentioned — how wolves change rivers in Yellowstone National Park — we have a great article on that with one of the most fascinating TED Talks you might never stumble upon on your own. Check this out:
Let’s continue this journey and allow ourselves to go down a sort of Ever Widening Circles rabbit hole.
In the end, we’ll see why, wherever possible, in the next century, we will need to reintroduce key species (sometimes large carnivores, but not always) or rigorously protect remaining populations of keystone species. If we don’t, even the most affluent people on the planet will personally suffer the consequences of living in a world wobbling wildly out of balance, resulting in real-life perils that affect everyone: plagues of insects like ticks and fire ants, desertification, sky-rocketing food costs, disease epidemics, etc.)
The best part of that story is that we have learned we can influence and improve this delicate balance!
Keystone Species: Whale Poop and Climate Change
Here’s a bit of insight you probably hadn’t expected: It turns out that whale poop is key to our atmosphere’s health!
Take a look at the details of this mind-bending insight (and more on those trophic cascades) in this beautifully produced video by an EWC favorite YouTube channel, Sustainable Human.
So helping whale populations to recover may be our first, most important step in slowing climate change. It would be “geo-engineering” at its best.
Ok, there are so many keystone species. Where do we start?
Whenever I ask myself that question, I head to another fabulous YouTube channel called SciShow. They almost never fail me when I’m searching to get a quick but thorough grasp of something. And sure enough, they have a terrific video explaining the importance of keystone species in an even better way!
Oh, and it looks like you’ll get a better understanding of those wolves changing rivers in Yellowstone too! Take a look:
After seeing that video, it might be wise to remind ourselves that we don’t know what we don’t know. If whales, wolves, elephants, parrot fish and foxes improve the earth for all of us, what does that say for all the keystone species we haven’t recognized and protected yet?
Here are two other great EWC articles that point to fascinating species that we might identify as Keystone Species:
So why should we care?
We’ll leave you today with a bonus video that puts it as plainly and beautifully as it can be. I stumbled upon this one, and couldn’t close without sharing it with you. It really ties everything we’ve learned today together and will leave you with some solid history and visuals for what this means if we do nothing.
Those lifeless beaches after starfish removal remind me of how we got The American Dust Bowl of the 1930’s and the even now overgrazing in China has caused the great Gobi Desertification. Did you know the sand from the Gobi desert now actually crosses the Pacific Ocean and reaches the United States?
So yes, we’ll have to spread the word on all this. We have far more power than we think! Here’s proof:
One by one our collective voices and choices can have positive consequences. Speak up when you can. Share this article. Hug an apex predator and don’t throw any starfish back into the sea.
Stay open, curious and hopeful!
~ Dr. Lynda
If you’ve read this far…
We’re guessing you’re a super fan! We’d love to hear from you about why you visit Ever Widening Circles and what we could do to improve this experience. (Just mention that you’re a super fan and we’ll get right back to you!)
- “Why We Should Love Apex Predators.” YouTube, Seeker, 3 June 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N4K9n0hNOU. Accessed 17 Sept. 2018. ↩
- “How Whales Change Climate.” YouTube, Sustainable Human, 30 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=M18HxXve3CM. Accessed 17 Sept. 2018. ↩
- “3 Animals That Keep Their Whole Ecosystem Together.” YouTube, SciShow, 30 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGcIp4YEKrc. Accessed 17 Sept. 2018. ↩
- “Some Animals Are More Equal than Others: Keystone Species and Trophic Cascades.” YouTube, Biointeractive, 3 May 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRGg5it5FMI. Accessed 17 Sept. 2018. ↩