Environmentalists and ecologists often talk about keystone species and their importance for biodiversity. But what do all these terms mean?
To start off, keystone species are integral for maintaining the balance of their ecosystem. If we were to remove them from their natural habitat, we could only hope to brace ourselves for the chain of negative reactions that are to follow.
Remember the famous animation Bee Movie? That’s one example of a keystone species—bees—being removed from their habitat or being rendered unable to perform their natural function. Bees help with pollination, which is the main way how flowers reproduce. They also help with cross-pollination, which helps maintain genetic diversity among plants. Without bees, we might not have many plants and flowers at all! And that means millions of other species who call the plant community their home will be lost. See the ripple effect?
It’s the same underwater.
Here are some marine keystone species you should know.
For the longest time, Hollywood has depicted Sharks as dangerous, rapacious creatures that exist to devour humans alive. But that image couldn’t be farther from the truth—except with a tiny exception. Yes, sharks are essentially a predatory species but they’re not interested in you or us.
Sharks prey on smaller fish, usually the ones that slow, weak or sick. They also graze the sea floor for marine carcasses. What this does is that it maintains the health of the entire ocean, it regulates the population of many fish species and it prevents dangerous diseases from spreading.
Without sharks, overpopulation of species could drive intense competition that could drive many marine creatures to extinction. So in spite of the bad press, sharks have really been the managers of the ocean.
These cuddly marine mammals aren’t just out there looking cute for no reason. Sea otters play an integral role in maintaining marine ecosystems near coastal areas. Sea otters prey on sea urchins, keeping their population in check. This is important because urchins feed on Kelp seaweeds, which are a source of shelter and food for various smaller species like snails and crabs.
Sea otters’ eating habits help preserve Kelp forests from depleting. This is incredibly beneficial to coastal populations since Kelp weeds prevent erosion of the shoreline. Additionally, Kelp weeds can absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere so they’re helping us mitigate climate change too.
These marine creatures may be tiny, but their impact on the marine food web is huge. Krill eat phytoplankton, which are rich in nutrients like anti-oxidants, bioflavonoid, amino acids, omega fats and carotenoids. Larger marine species like whales, penguins and seals have no other way of getting these nutrients and by eating Krill, they’re able to keep their health.
We often hear about coral reefs as one of the most important habitats in the marine world. But taking care of this keystone species in another keystone species—the parrotfish. This fish feeds on the dead pieces, branches and algae that collect on the reef’s surface. Some algae species can be pretty invasive and can even kill coral reefs, so the parrotfish’s eating habits help keep the reefs alive and well.
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At first glance, jellyfish look like empty bags floating through the ocean. Their clear, gelatinous bodies have no heart or brain; to most people, the only thing worth noting about jellyfish is their ability to sting you.
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