Why Protecting Species from Extinction Matters

Illustration: Łukasz Golędzinowski

Illustration: Łukasz Golędzinowski

Many endangered species are top predators whose numbers are dwindling due to conflicts with humans. We kill predators all over the world because we fear for our own lives as well as pets and livestock, we compete with them for prey and we destroy their habitats to expand our communities and agricultural operations. 

Take for example the effect human intervention had on the gray wolf and the subsequential effects their dwindling population numbers had on its environment and biodiversity.

Before a mass extermination effort in the U.S. that decimated wolf populations in the first half of the 20th century, wolves kept other animals' populations from growing exponentially. They hunted elk, deer, and moose and also killed smaller animals such as coyotes, raccoons, and beavers.

Without wolves to keep other animals' numbers in check, prey populations grew larger. Exploding elk populations in the western United States wiped out so many willows and other riparian plants that songbirds no longer had sufficient food or cover in these areas, threatening their survival and increasing numbers of insects like mosquitos that the songbirds were meant to control.

Do we really wish a world with only what we rely on for food and shelter? Do animals have no value if we don’t eat them?

But it's not only large beasts of prey that can impact the ecosystem in their absence, small species can have just as big of an effect.

While the losses of large, iconic species like the wolf, tiger, rhino, and polar bear may make for more stimulating news stories than the disappearance of moths or mussels, even small species can affect ecosystems in significant ways.

Consider the meager freshwater mussel: There are nearly 300 species of mussel in North American river and lakes, and most of them are threatened. How does this affect the water we all depend on?

Many different kinds of wildlife eat mussels, including raccoon, otters, herons and egrets. Mussels filter water for food and thus are a purification system. They are usually present in groups called beds. Beds of mussels may range in size from smaller than a square foot to many acres; these mussel beds can be a hard 'cobble' on the lake, river, or stream bottom which supports other species of fish, aquatic insects and worms.

In their absence, these dependent species settle elsewhere, lower the available food source for their predators and in turn causing those predators to leave the area. Like the gray wolf, even the small mussel's disappearance acts like a domino, toppling the entire ecosystem one related species at a time.

We may not see wolves on a regular basis, and nobody really wants a poster of a Higgins eye pearly mussel on the wall, but the presence of these creatures is interwoven with the environment we all share. Losing even a small strand in the web of life contributes to the unraveling of our planet's sustainability, the fine balance of biodiversity that affects each and every one of us. 

Illustration: Łukasz Golędzinowski
Sources: Yale Environment 360 - ThoughtCo

ConservationNiccolo Gorfer