Keystone species shape and define an entire ecosystem.
They can be found in pretty much any environment—like bears in forests, beavers in rivers, sharks in oceans and more. Their methods for maintaining a balance between all life within their ecosystem may differ, but they all have one thing in common: if they were to disappear, that ecosystem would change drastically—or cease to exist altogether.
What do keystone species do?
A keystone species makes sure the environment’s population is diverse and balanced. Grizzly bears, for instance, leave a trail of salmon carcasses in their wake, adding nutrients to the soil of forest floors which helps surrounding plants grow and thrive. Beavers, meanwhile, create dams that trap fine sediment in riverways and allow only clean water through. This gives salmon a safe environment to make their migration upstream and lay their eggs. In each case, the keystone species may be thinking only about their own needs, but their actions have enormous impact on the greater environment.
What’s so special about sharks?
The world’s oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the Earth’s water. They also provide us with much of the oxygen we breathe and help regulate the planet’s overall temperature. So where do sharks come in? Sharks thin the numbers of plant-munching fish, ensuring that they don’t eat coral or other plant life to extinction. Sharks also consume weak, sick and dying fish, as well as the carcasses of dead fish on the ocean floor. This prevents the spread of disease throughout the environment and helps to regulate the overall population.
Sharks under attack
Sharks are one of the single most important keystone species on our planet, but human action is quickly driving them to the edge of extinction. Humans kill an average of up to 100 million sharks every year for cosmetics, pet food and supplements. On top of that, sharks are dealing with the growing acidification of oceans—a direct result of CO2 emissions that prevents organisms like the coral reefs from growing and regenerating properly which may lead to overall habitat destruction for all ocean life. Not to mention plastic pollution and overfishing at the hands of—you guessed it—humans.
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