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Keeping Ecosystems Alive: The Significance of Ecology

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We live in a fascinating world teeming with beauty and diverse life. There are organisms of many varieties surviving in a wide range of environments throughout this planet, each one designed to carry out its purpose and fulfill its role in the ecosystem. As the most intelligent and advanced of all creatures, man is capable of fully appreciating this grand design and studying the purpose behind it. However, this world is not perfect. Although organisms are designed to survive in their natural habitats, they are constantly in a struggle against other creatures. Particularly in the animal kingdom, it is easy to see that there is a constant battle for survival between predators and their prey as well as competing species. The natural conflict commonly rids ecosystems of weaker animals, ensuring that only the stronger individuals survive to pass on their genes. Although this is, in fact, an excellent system, it has also led to more tragic results. Extinctions have occurred throughout the history of the earth, with the extinction of dinosaurs and other well known animals being among the most famous. The reasons behind these past extinctions are often unknown, though there exist several plausible theories. Despite the extinctions of the past, many creatures have managed to survive and refill the earth with their diversity. Yet there is possibly an equally dangerous threat to the modern organisms of this world, mankind. The same being that is capable of managing and protecting the rest of the living creation is also able to threaten and damage it. This is an obvious fact, as man has been responsible for an unfortunate number of animal extinctions throughout history, and continues to drive many modern species to their end. This is not only through actions such as overhunting, but via unexpectedly disastrous means such as introducing dangerous species into ecosystems which are not designed to cope with them, or disposing of dangerous materials in areas where species can be threatened by them. Yet not all people treat the environment with this level of carelessness; the desire to understand and protect the species which share this world with us has remained alive and strong in many people. So, how do we properly manage our natural resources and maintain ecosystems healthy? The answers may be numerous and intricate at times, but the base of environmental management is always a proper understanding of ecology, the study of the interactions between species and their environment within an ecosystem.

The scope of ecology itself is massive, as it is a complex field which includes every living organism in existence. This article will focus mainly on how mankind can help preserve animal species through a better understanding of this area of study, though organisms such as plants still play an important role in ecology.

Ecology is an important branch of science which focuses on the interactions between different species of organisms and their environment. Photograph Source:

Humans are a part of ecology. We obviously must interact with the other organisms present in this world as well as our environment in order to survive. Humans interacted with their surroundings by creating useful tools, and the interaction between humans and other species took place in the struggle for survival and acquiring of food. However, the interactions between humans and animals have not always been violent. Animal domestication is an example of a more peaceful relationship, especially in the case of the domestication of animals such as wolves (which eventually led to the creation of modern dogs). Despite this, it has become very common recently for mankind to interfere with the health of wildlife species. This is partly due to our ever-increasing population numbers and need for a greater number of resources. As a result, many species have been hunted to extinction by man.

Possibly one of the most recognizable animals that was hunted to extinction by man is the dodo bird (Raphus cucullatus). This unique, flightless species was once found only in the island of Mauritius and previously possessed no natural predators. Free from danger, the species eventually developed in such a way that it possessed virtually no defenses against potential predators. Such a design originally brought no risks for the bird, but proved to be its downfall once the Dutch settled the island in the early 17th century. Despite the fact that the dodo was considered unpleasant to eat due to its tough flesh, it was continually hunted by the settlers. The slow bird was easily caught by its new, unexpected predators and easily killed once chased down. Its lack of defense mechanisms made it an incredibly easy animal to catch, which is probably why the Dutch continued to hunt it despite its tough flesh. However, the accidental introduction of rats into the island also proved to be detrimental for the species. The dodo could lay its solitary egg in the middle of a forest without fear of it being eaten, but introduced rats found the egg to be an easy source of food. Even a young dodo was vulnerable to attacks from the new pests. Eventually, the helpless dodo became extinct.[1]

A reconstruction of the extinct dodo bird. Photograph Credit: Peter Maas

The demise of this unusual bird species is a clear example of careless hunting leading to the extinction of a species. Though the killing of a controlled number of these birds would have been justified by the need for food, the slaughter which took place was far beyond what was necessary.

Another unfortunate extinction resulting from uncontrolled hunting was that of the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalus). This species possessed a much more widespread distribution than the dodo bird, with the seals once having occurred throughout the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and western Atlantic Ocean. This broad distribution may have given the species a much better chance at survival than the limited range of the dodo bird, but in the end even the Caribbean monk seal was extirpated due to relentless hunting. This hunting began with the arrival of Spanish explorers from Europe during the late 1400’s. Since then, fishermen, sailors, and whalers also began to hunt these seals for their fur hides, meat, and oil. The species was not aggressive and tolerated the presence of humans, which made them rather easy to hunt. Added pressure was created by fishing (which reduced the number of prey for the seals) and coastal development (which destroyed the seals’ habitat), along with other exploitation activities. The species was greatly affected by the combination of all these activities, and the species was last sighted in 1952.[2]

It seems that even a widespread marine species such as the Caribbean monk seal is not safe from man. Despite the careless nature behind the extinctions of both the dodo and the Caribbean monk seal, it can be said the initial reasons for their hunting was understandable. After all, humans require food and resources as well. However, not all animals were killed for such rational reasons. Some animals have been threatened due to absurd beliefs and superstition.

The Hawaiian monk seal is a close relative of the extinct Caribbean monk seal. Photograph Credit: Klaus Jost

The Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) is the victim of ridiculous Zanzibari beliefs and rumors which led many to believe that witches raised the big cats to terrorize people, retrieve food such as chickens and goats, guard wealth, and to profit from stud fees and the sale of cubs. These beliefs caused the Zanzibari people to fear leopards and attack them (though some believe the leopards were magically protected by their keepers), although leopards were also killed by Zanzibari hunters in order to profit from the sale of skins and leopard parts.[3] The fear and hatred against these misunderstood predators eventually lead to a series of campaigns leopard-killing campaigns which devastated the species.[4] Though there are occasional claims of recent live leopard sightings, none of these have been confirmed. Many believe the species to be extinct.

These tragic cases are only a few among many manmade extinctions throughout history. It may seem as if man can simply hunt any species to extinction as he wishes without any repercussions, yet this is not the case. One of the most disastrous results of extirpating a species took place in what is considered one of the most beautiful national parks in the world, Yellowstone National Park.

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) was an undesired species in Yellowstone National Park due to safety reasons. As a result, the species was never granted protection by the government, and administrators, poachers, and tourists were free to shoot the wolves as they pleased. Fear of the gray wolf and its lack of protection eventually led to the local extinction of the species, just as many wanted. However, this would soon prove to be a grave mistake, as the gray wolf was among the most important animals in all of Yellowstone. This is due to the fact that it is a keystone predator, an animal that dramatically affects its environment by keeping the population numbers of other species under control.[5] With the wolves gone, one animal in particular was left to thrive. This animal was the elk (Cervus elaphus), one of the gray wolf’s most common prey animals. The elk was too large for smaller predators such as the coyote to hunt and the omnivorous grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) and black bears (Ursus americanus) did not hunt elk as frequently as the gray wolves did. As a result, the elk began to multiply beyond the control of the ecosystem. Overgrazing by the rising elk numbers made certain plant species, such as aspen, less abundant. The lack of aspen trees also began to hurt the local beaver population, which relied particularly on aspen trees as a food source.[6] Since the wolves commonly hunted sick or injured elk, their disappearance allowed for these animals to remain in the ecosystem, leading to the spread of disease which threatened countless species, including the elk themselves.[7] The coyotes of Yellowstone now faced less competition in the absence of wolves, and also multiplied. This large number of coyotes also began to place further stress on the environment, as they greatly reduced the number of small prey in the park. This lack of small prey would eventually have an adverse effect on the ecosystem’s foxes, hawks, and eagles.[8] This disturbing chain effect was entirely the result of removing just one species from the park. Ironically, it was the gray wolf, an animal considered too dangerous for Yellowstone National Park, which helped to keep the ecosystem alive and healthy. Despite endless debates concerning the reintroduction of gray wolves back into Yellowstone, the decision was finally made to release gray wolves into Yellowstone.[9] Unsurprisingly, the health of the ecosystem soon began to return to normal as the new wolves began to multiply and fulfill their roles as keystone predators. The reintroduction is considered one of the most successful wildlife projects in U.S. history.

The gray wolf is a keystone predator which controls the population numbers of its prey. Photograph Source:

This entire ecological nightmare could have been avoided had there been a greater understanding of the importance of ecology. The science of ecology helps us to understand the relationships between species and the effects they have on their natural environment. Since each ecosystem possesses species which are vital to its health and success, the removal of even one of these species can prove to be lethal to the rest of the ecosystem. However, a negative effect can also be produced from the introduction of a foreign species into an ecosystem.

The introduction of the cane toad (Bufo marinus) into Australia was originally intended to aid in the control of the population of a pest species known as the cane beetle (Dermolepida alborhirtum). However, the toads avoided the beetles and began to feed on other species. The cane toads were also deadly to native predators, as they posses toxins which can be fatal for many animals which attempt to prey on them.[10] The species is also quite tough and adaptable, as it adapted to the weather throughout its Australian range quite easily.[11]To make matters worse, the cane toad is a prolific breeder, with each female capable of producing anywhere from 8,000-35,000 eggs twice a year. The eggs hatch less than half a week later and it is possible for the tadpoles to become toads in as little as 17 days. Along with the fact that it takes less than a year for these toads to reach sexual maturity, these traits make the cane toad an extremely difficult species to manage.[12] The combination of powerful toxins, adaptive abilities, and prolific reproduction makes the cane toad one of the most dangerous invasive species and a great threat to the future of Australia’s wildlife.

The cane toad is a dangerous invasive species which threatens the future of Australia's wildlife. Photograph Credit: James Dowling-Healey

This is far from the only case where an invasive species has lead to the harm of an ecosystem. However, by now it is clear that it is essential that we manage our natural environment with great care and responsibility, and this is only possible with the proper knowledge of ecology. Since we depend on the world around us and the natural resources it offers, we must understand the way our world works in order to use and manage it properly. This is especially important in modern times, where humans have increased greatly in number and require more resources. Fortunately, the vast field of ecology has many uses.

Ecology has allowed us to conserve habitats and their biodiversity. For instance, heathland is a landscape and type of vegetation that is disappearing quickly throughout Western Europe. Ecological studies carried out on heathland and its dominant plant, heather, have aided in the understanding of the effects of traditional management by grazing, burning, and cutting. These studies have also helped us to develop systems of management directed towards the conservation of this habitat and its plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. If we maintain a mosaic of habitats, we ensure the survival of a great variety of wildlife.[13]

Ecology has also aided in advancing our knowledge and understanding of public health in some unexpected ways. Ecologists have discovered that marshes and wetlands filter toxins and other impurities from their waters, an ecological service which is beneficial for nearby communities. This, in turn, promotes habitat conservation, allowing for these environments to be left intact and their biodiversity to remain unaffected by their removal.[14] It has also been discovered that many plants and animals produce chemicals that protect them from predators as well as diseases. The very same chemicals which assist these species in their survival have been harvested from the organisms and used in the treatment of human diseases. Some species which have been used in this way include the Pacific Yew tree, which produces a substance used in cancer treatment, and the horseshoe crab, which produces hemolymph, a substance used in leukemia treatments.[15]

The horseshoe crab produces a substance known as hemolymph which is used in the treatment of leukemia. Photograph Source:

Knowledge of the relationships between different species can also assist in agriculture. Aphids are common insects which damage cultivated plants, making them a great enemy for farmers. However, aphids also possess natural predators, particularly the ladybug (also known as the ladybird). In sprayed crops, ladybugs which come into contact with contaminated areas or prey on contaminated aphids risk being poisoned and killed. As a result, ecologists are currently studying ladybugs and their reactions to pesticides commonly used against aphids. The results of these studies may lead to a method of defense against aphids which makes the best use of the impact of ladybugs together with other control measures while keeping ladybugs safe as they hunt their notorious prey.[16] Another example of the role of ecology in agriculture is in fishing industry. Ecological research has led to the discovery that estuaries are nursery grounds for fish populations that live in coastal waters. Keeping these estuaries protected is an important part of not only the management of these fish species, but also helps support the fishing industry.[17]

The ladybug is a beetle which preys on the aphid, an infamous pest. Photograph Source:

These are merely a small number of examples displaying how the field of ecology has supported both humans and animals in recent years. When people do not understand the significance and usefulness of ecology, terrible errors are made in the way we interact with our environment. However, once we study the design and purposes of ecosystems and educate others on this important science, we find clever and healthy methods of maintaining ecosystems while acquiring the natural resources we need.

Ecology is slowly becoming one of the most important areas of study. This is not only because it is fascinating science that relates to every single organism on the planet, but because it provides us with knowledge on how to use the natural resources which have been given to us. It helps create a world where we obtain what we need from nature while also being able to stop and enjoy the sight of a beautiful and healthy ecosystem. Ecology is not only a fascinating subject, it is a science that matters to us all.

[1] Fryer, Jonathan. “Bringing the dodo back to life.” (2002): 14 Aug 2002.

[2] “Caribbean Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis).” Available from Internet; accessed 17 August 2011.

[3] Goldman, H.V. & Walsh, M.T. (1997). “A Leopard in Jeopardy: An Anthropological Survey of Practices and Beliefs which Threaten the Survival of the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi)”. Zanzibar Forestry Technical Paper No. 63, Jozani-Chwaka Bay Conservation Project, Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar. Retrieved 2011-08-17.

[4] Walsh, M.T.; Goldman, H.V. (2007). “Killing the King: The Demonization and Extermination of the Zanzibar Leopard / Tuer le roi: la diabolisation et l’extermination du leopard de Zanzibar”. In Dounias, E.; Motte-Florac, E.; Dunham, M.. Le symbolisme des animaux: L’animal, clef de voûte de la relation entre l’homme et la nature? / Animal symbolism: Animals, keystone of the relationship between man and nature?. Paris: Éditions de l’IRD. pp. 1133–1182.

[5] “Gray Wolf (Canis lupus).” Available from Internet; accessed 17 Aug 2011.

[6] “Wolves in Yellowstone: A Short History.” Available from Internet; accessed 17 Aug 2011.

[7] Bishop, Norman A.. “What Good Are Wolves?.” (2011): 04 Jan 2011.

[8] “Wolves in Yellowstone: A Short History.” Available from Internet; accessed 7 May 2011.

[9] Maughan, Ralph. “History and current status of the Greater Yellowstone wolf restoration .” Available from Internet; accessed 17 Aug 2011.

[10] “Cane Toad.” Available from Internet; accessed 17 Aug 2011.

[11] “Cane Toad.” Available from Internet; accessed 17 Aug 2011.

[12] “Cane Toad.” Available from Internet; accessed 17 Aug 2011.

[13] “About Ecology.” Available from Internet; accessed 17 August 2011.

[14] “What Does Ecology Have To Do With Me?.” Available from Internet; accessed 17 August 2011.

[15] Ibid

[16] “About Ecology.” Available from Internet; accessed 17 August 2011.

[17] “What Does Ecology Have To Do With Me?.” Available from Internet; accessed 17 August 2011.

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