Carnivores – both fascinating and frightening for humans, yet vital for the ecosystem

Further thoughts on Environment and Natural Resource Management

Lions, leopards, lynxes, pumas, wolves and sea otters – one can find most of these species on a sunday trip to the zoo. They provoke thoughts of fascination and fear in us. However, they are endangered through pollutants and the intervention of humans in the environment. Their natural habitats are being destroyed without second thoughts. But did you know that the imminent extinction of these endangered species has a huge impact on the ecosystem?

Three fourth of the largest carnivores are in decline and for a long time no one has been aware of their huge contribution to the ecosystem. Bill Ripple and a team of international scientists have just published their study “Status and Ecological Effects of the World’s Largest Carnivores”, which faces this exact issue.

The scientists found out that when big carnivores (tertiary consumers) disappear, smaller carnivores (secondary consumers) are spreading out unrestrained. In Africa, for example, the decrease of lions and leopards led to an increase in olive baboons, which threatened farm crops and livestock. Furthermore, the populations of herbivores, which are usually next in the food chain, tend to explode. If the number of herbivores is unlimitedly growing “they will eat themselves out of house and home. If the plant can’t flourish, that impacts a lot of different animal that depend on the plant”, Ripple stated. The loss of these species has a wide range of impacts and finally leads to a degradation of the ecosystem.

However, large-bodied herbivores can have a positive impact on the ecosystem as well. At least as long as their growth is controlled through a well-functioning food chain. In his study “Erosion of community diversity and stability by herbivore removal under warming” Eric Post, from the Penn State University, proofed that a well-balanced species diversity can protect ecosystems from the influences of climate change and global warming. In a ten-year field experiment in Greenland he proofed that herbivores, such as reindeers and musk oxes, buffer the influences of climate change on the local plant community diversity. However, the diversity of herbivores itself is threatened by climate change as well.

As you can see, the loss of one species has not only tremendous impacts on other species but also on biodiversity. In order to stop the whole ecosystem falling out of balance, it is necessary to protect all species, even the frightening and scary ones.

 


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