A surprising study finds that sharks are key to restoring damaged habitats, combating climate change

The destruction and endangerment of natural habitats and ecosystems are widely synonymous with deforestation, severe weather patterns and endangerment and extinction of species.

A new study claims that habitat degradation could exacerbate the extinction of a certain category of species: predators.

Published in the Journal for Animal Ecology, university researchers have worked to determine whether the loss of apex predators in various ecosystems affects how a given ecosystem reacts to an extreme weather event, or how these ecosystems are otherwise prepared to suffer from climate change without the presence of natural predators.


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To test this theory, researchers monitored tiger sharks on the Australian Shark Coast and how the fluctuations in local shark populations shifted the grazing grasslands native to the site.

The seagrass in Shark Bay is the main food source for mermaids (sea cows) and sea turtles native to the ecosystem. It is also threatened by extreme weather events that may be associated with anthropomorphic climate change, most recently a 2011 global warming caused by strong La Niña conditions.

This caused “catastrophic” damage to the grasslands in the bay, forcing sirens and turtles from the area to find other sources of food.

These conditions were ideal for researchers to simulate how mermaid eating habits can prevent recovery of biomass threatened by severe climatic events, and also how a lack of natural predators can contribute to the destruction of the ecosystem.

Knowing that tiger sharks routinely feed on mermaids and other large aquatic herbivores, the study’s authors wanted to see how the seagrass ecosystem could be further disrupted when the region’s main predator is absent.

After simulating mermaid grazing habits, researchers found that grassland cover declined rapidly with an abundance of marine herbivores eating food, implying that without tiger sharks to mitigate the population, seagrass cover declines more rapidly.

“Our results suggest that changes to herbivorous behaviors triggered by loss of predation may undermine environmental resilience to [extreme climactic events], especially where long-lived herbivores abound, ”the report concluded.

While both climate change events and loss of predatory species can each offset the loss of natural habitats, the methods for managing them differ. Researchers recommend that local and regional management is critical to prevent widespread environmental damage.

The reforestation and conservation of apex predators in these ecosystems is also a short-term method to further mitigate damage to ecosystem.


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