Top apex predators such as polar bears often get an unfair reputation. These predators are branded aggressive and violent. in actuality, they are simply behaving the way they have been biologically designed to in order to protect their kind, and to ensure ecosystems function as normal. Farmers might also want to hunt wolves to protect livestock and any shark attack tends to make big news. With this sort of reputation, many people have little sympathy for any apex predator species.
What many of these people may not realize is that apex predators are important for the health of the planet. Whether you are talking about ocean apex predators like orcas or land predators like tigers, they serve a key function in their habitat. In fact, many of them are known as keystone species because their absence could lead to the destruction of the ecosystems in which they exist.
Why are apex predators important? In short, they help to maintain the balance in the ecosystem. In this post, we are going to look at some of the reasons we need apex predators.
Regulating Lesser Predators
The food web in any ecosystem is complex. In many cases, you may have apex predators, but you will also have a range of smaller predators. As an example, you might have wolves as the apex predator, but then you could also have cats or foxes as the mesopredators. The presence of apex predators helps to keep the populations and activities of smaller predators in check.
If an apex predator is wiped out or greatly diminished, it can lead to a phenomenon known as mesopredator release. When this occurs, the exploding population of smaller predators can be destructive to the ecosystem. As an example, it could lead to them overhunting a prey species that would have supported them when their population and activities were kept under control by the presence of the apex predator. This can then have a cascading effect on the ecosystem that will lead to dramatic changes that can affect all species.
Controlling Prey Species Populations
Many people might think it would be great for prey species if the predators disappeared. This might seem logical on the surface, but it is more complicated than that. Predators work to remove the weak and the ill from prey populations. Over time, this makes for a stronger and healthier population in the prey species.
Beyond that, prey species can be their own worst enemies when populations are allowed to grow unchecked. Imagine grasslands overpopulated with wildebeests. With nothing to control the population or force them to move on, they could overgraze and destroy their food supply.
Protecting The Smaller Animals in the Ecosystem
While it may not be their intention to protect the smaller animals in the ecosystem, the activities of apex predators often serve that function. Depending on the context, this is achieved both through the regulating of mesopredators and the control of prey species populations.
When mesopredators are allowed to hunt freely and with no competition from apex predators, they can often put pressure on smaller animals. Additionally, these smaller animals often rely on the same food sources as prey species. If the prey species population is left to grow with no pressure from predators, they could destroy the food source for smaller animals.
Maintaining the Balance
When you put it all together, apex predators often play an important role in maintaining the balance of an ecosystem. When they disappear or their numbers get too low, it can have a ripple effect that will be harmful to all of the plants and animals in the ecosystem.
Beyond just affecting the animals and plants, it can have an impact on the land itself. When prey animals overgraze, it can lead to erosion. Unchecked herds can also overuse resources like water. In the oceans, apex predators leave meals for scavengers at the bottom of the food chain to support the ecosystem. It is all an important balance that can have catastrophic effects when it is thrown off. With many of the world’s top 10 apex predators being under threat, this should be a concern for everyone.
At Wildlife Collections, we recognize the importance of apex predators. We work with non-profits like the Orca Research Trust and Polar Bears International to help them raise money. If you are interested in helping these apex predators, please check out our products to support these causes.