The world’s monsters are in danger, and that’s a truly scary thing. Researcher have made a strong case over the last few decades that large carnivores are essential ecosystem managers whose influence is felt throughout the food web and affects their prey, their competition and plant life (a ripple effect known as a trophic cascade). They rein in herbivores by preying on them and changing they way they act by creating a “landscape of fear” and keep smaller mesopredators in check through competition and intimidation. With tooth and claw, they regulate some of an ecosystem’s many moving parts, almost always for the better.
Large predators are valuable in less obvious ways, too. By killing and controlling herbivore prey, they help reduce competition between wild and domestic herbivores for grazing, keep diseases from spilling over from one group to the other and give plants the chance to flourish, which helps keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. The carcasses they leave behind feed scavengers and cycle nutrients through the food web year-round, and help buffer the boom-and-bust cycle that climates change creates for these grisly resources. They’re also big business for humans, and help drive tourism revenue from Yellowstone to the Serengeti.
While predators’ place at the top of the food chain is important, it’s also precarious. “These are some of the world’s most revered and iconic species,” ecologist William Ripple and a team of researchers say in a new paper on the state of big carnivores. “Ironically, they are also some of the most threatened.” [Read more]