Climate change has already made its impact known — floods and wildfires in California, monstrous hurricanes in Florida and Texas and insanely powerful typhoons in the Pacific Ocean are just a few examples of how the world is changing right before our eyes.
While we might be preparing for the next big storm or blazing fire, it’s important to remember that we aren’t the only species affected by these changes. A number of new animals have found themselves on the endangered species list because of changes to their ecosystem. Why are these ecosystems changing, what effect does it have on the animals that live there and what can we do to stop these changes from continuing?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than 23,000 species are endangered at the moment. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service only recognize a small number of these species — somewhere between 400 and 1500 species. These aren’t all mammals — the list also includes plants, birds, corals, and amphibians — but even this monumental list may not be accurate. Scientists believe that it only represents a small fraction of the species that face a threat or the danger of extinction.
The culprits behind this threat i human interference — according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), human behavior has increased this trend toward extinction between 100 and 1000 times what it would be naturally.
Interference isn’t just damaging to the animals themselves — it threatens the biodiversity of the ecosystems where these species live.
The Importance of Biodiversity
Biodiversity is the variability among living organisms — all the animals, plants, insects, and microorganisms that make up an ecosystem. Why is this variation so significant? Simply put, it creates the foundation for life in the habitat — if one species dies out, biodiversity ensures that there is another species that can take its place to maintain the stability of the ecosystem.
One of the best recent examples of this is the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Wolves were wiped out in the park more than 100 years ago and just recently introduced again. The effect on the local ecosystem was staggering.
Once the wolves were reintroduced and able to establish themselves, they thrived and were not alone — herbivores started to return, and with them came new plant life. Many of the species that had left the park because of the unbalanced ecosystem returned, and the entire area has started thriving once again.
This prosperity is primarily because of the wolves. Wolves, in this instance, are a keystone species — they have an inordinately significant impact on the ecosystem with both their presence and their absence. Without them, the large herbivores were able to breed unchecked, and eventually, these animals wiped out their own food source and had to move on. As odd as it sounds, without the wolves, even the rivers and wetlands in the area dried up.
Now, introducing wolves isn’t the perfect solution to restore crumbling ecosystems — while they may be a keystone species in Yellowstone, they would unbalance other ecosystems where they are not native. Just look at what’s happened to the Everglades — non-native pythons are thriving in the swampy wetlands, but these apex predators are destabilizing the ecosystem because they have no natural predators, so they’re free to eat, breed and grow.
The Effect on Humans
Animals aren’t the only ones being affected by the destabilization of these ecosystems world-wide — it’s impacting humans too. This isn’t the first mass extinction to hit this planet — in fact, it’s the sixth, with the last one being the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago — but it is the first mass extinction that we are both a part of and a major cause of.
Just look at the bees. Bee species across the globe are under significant threat, both because of human behavior — specifically, pesticides that are destroying bee hives — and because of changing climates. While human intervention has started to help restore the shrinking bee populations, it is the perfect example of what might happen if we allow this ecosystem destabilization to continue. To put it quite frankly, if bees die out, humanity goes with them.
Without bees, we’d lose most of the fruits and vegetables that we eat on a daily basis — strawberries, watermelon, walnuts, cucumbers, and peppers will all go extinct without bees to pollinate them, just to name a few. It also means that coffee will become an exorbitantly expensive luxury commodity if it survives, chocolate will die off, and even getting a hamburger will be next to impossible — bees also pollinate the alfalfa that feeds the cows that become your burger.
As plants and animals go extinct, we also lose things like potential medicines and cures that could exist in herbs we haven’t even discovered yet. We may also experience more diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile Virus as pests like ticks and mosquitoes spread and thrive.
Widespread disease is a worst-case-scenario projection, but if we continue to act like the planet is our trashcan, both literally and figuratively, it could become our reality and humans could potentially find themselves facing extinction right alongside the bees, white rhinos, and other endangered species.
Balancing Humanity, Biodiversity and Ecosystems
We need to stop thinking of ourselves as some elevated, civilized beings — we are animals, just like the rest of the creatures that inhabit this planet. Just because we have opposable thumbs and smartphones doesn’t mean we’re any better or any more important than the rest of the plants, animals, insects, and microorganism that call this planet home. We are part of these ecosystems, and as the dominant species on the planet, we must protect them. Once we figure that out, and figure out how to live with the Earth instead of on it, we will finally be able to make some positive changes to protect our future as well as hers.