Apex predators: What they are, why they're important and how apex predators affect ecosystems
We take a look at the importance of apex predators
What are apex predators?
The word ‘apex’ refers to a peak or the very top of something, so when combined with the word ‘predator’ it means that an animal is at the top of a food chain and has no natural predators and nothing kills it for food.
Examples of apex predators include grizzly bears, whale shark, polar bears, saltwater crocodiles, Komodo dragon, tiger and lion - but there are many more and you can check out our list of the top dangerous apex predators in the world
Why are apex predators important?
These top-level predators can have far-reaching effects on ecosystems. They control prey numbers, and as a consequence limit smaller predators. The removal of an apex predator can have knock on effects on the entire ecosystem, including the landscape.
For example, when grey wolves were hunted to extirpation in Yellowstone National Park the population of elk, their primary prey soared. This in turn led to overgrazing of woody trees such as aspen and willow. Beavers declined as a consequence of this, as they depend on willow to survive the winter.
When wolves were reintroduced into the park in 1995 beneficial effects cascaded down the food chain. Elk populations were controlled, and due to increased predation pressure they grazed more widely, allowing the trees to recover, and consequently beaver numbers to once again flourish.
In this way apex predators can be seen to 'balance' an ecosystem, and as such they are an important concern for conservationists. Worryingly, many apex predator populations are in decline, due to hunting by humans.
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Main image: Grey wolf. © hkuchera/Getty
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