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Gone: Predator collapse and Extinctions of the 00’s

January 6, 2010

Welcome to the Teens, hard on the heels of the Noughties. As humanity continues to hack and chew at the earth, extinction rates continue to rise. I have a really hard time caring about anything but this issue, because it is an emblem and a symptom of a much larger phenomenon than any sort of social-justice issue could ever be. I’m currently reading an excellent book called “Where the Wild Things Were”, by William Stolzenburg. Stolzenburg describes in this book what happens to ecological networks in the absence of large, powerful predators. Drawn from research in diverse locations all over the world, from the Aleutians to Venezuela, from Yellowstone to Rock Creek Park in DC, the worldwide crash in predator populations has caused ecological disruption on a scale hardly imaginable.

One significant consequence of the elimination of so-called “keystone” predators from ecosystems is the phenomenon of “mesopredator release”, namely the ecological unleashing of mid-size predators (like raccoons or housecats) normally kept in check by wolves, lions, eagles, killer whales or their ilk. Mesopredator release results in population explosions, overexploitation of resources, despoilation of the environment, and ultimate collapse. A similar phenomenon is the ecological releasing of herbivores, like the plague of white-tail deer that has contributed so greatly to the crash in biodiversity of the US eastern forests, or the green sea-urchins that devastate kelp forests when there are no sea-otters to eat them. I found particularly poignant the description of howler monkeys on a forested island in a man-made lake in Venezuela. The monkeys are typically a tight-knit social species, strictly territorial, and mutually communicative with their distinctive shrieks in the presence of threats. In the absence of those threats, namely jaguars and harpy eagles, the monkeys stripped the island bare of foliage, slept solitary, one to each tree, and fought viciously when they encountered each other. They no longer howled. Does that remind you of any other primates? It should. It should also make you wonder how anything can be accomplished in the absence of the thing that we humans need more than anything else in the world: more than peace, more than social justice, more than equality of any sort. We need predators. And we need them NOW.
To cheer you up, Have a look at Mongabay’s roundup of extinctions from the previous decade.


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