The Price of Extinction: The Food Chain’s Downward Spiral

A report recently published in the journal Science suggests that the number of large animals disappearing from the food chain is creating an imbalance that could wreak unimaginable havoc on ecosystems across the planet.

Lions, tigers, wolves, sharks and bears are some of the planet’s most majestic and fierce predators, and virtually all are in jeopardy of extinction within decades. These mass die-offs could result in crippling effects on the environment, evident as numbers continue to dwindle causing swells among prey species, according to the study, funded primarily by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook.

Approximately 75 million sharks are caught each year for their fins, considered a delicacy throughout China, and catching on in countries across the planet including the U.S. As U.S. Atlantic coast shark populations thin, their main prey, the cow-nosed ray begins to boom, wiping out scores of Chesapeake Bay oyster, which is itself also in danger.

But it’s not just predators who are in jeopardy, says the report. Large herbivores like the East African wildebeest and buffalo are being hunted in such great numbers that plants are overgrowing and leading to raging wildfires during the dry season.

The reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park has been helping to correct the serious state of decline the park faced after the endangered wolves became all but absent, allowing elk and deer to take over threatening crucial parts of the park’s flora. According to Ellen K. Pikitch, one of the study authors, just one of the issues where there’s a marked absence of wolves and excess deer is the presence of deer ticks, which carry the dangerous Lyme disease; “You may hate wolves. You might think they’re dangerous. But without them, the land changes.”

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image: jurvetson