There is something majestic and beautiful about apex predators. When we took our sons during their childhood years to a zoo or a wild animal preserve, the first animals they wanted to see were lions, tigers, bears, and wolves—the animals at the top of the food chain, what zoologists refer to as apex predators. Two field research studies, one done in Australia and the second done in Rocky Mountain National Park, plus a published critique of these studies add to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that apex predators have value and purpose far beyond their aesthetic appeal to humans.

Apex predators prey on the top herbivores. However, the top herbivores are also a big attraction for humans. Young children and adults are enamored by these magnificent creatures. For example, the buffalo, moose, and elk of Yellowstone National Park draw visitors from all over the world. So great was this tourist draw that for several decades Yellowstone Park officials protected these mega-herbivores from wolves and grizzly bears.

Yellowstone research biologists recently persuaded reluctant park officials and even more reluctant neighboring ranchers to allow a limited reintroduction of grizzly bears and wolves. The presence of these apex predators has resulted in Yellowstone’s top herbivores avoiding any significant grazing along Yellowstone’s river and stream banks. This avoidance behavior has led to the recovery of willows, and the recovery of willows has resulted in a minor population explosion of beavers and beaver dams. The return of a much larger beaver population to Yellowstone has had wide-ranging benefits for the entire ecosystem. In two previous articles here and here, I described and documented these benefits and how beavers and their dams and lodges enhance human civilization in other ways.1

The Australian field research study monitored the impact of an apex predator (wild dingoes) on mesopredators (feral cats) and the mesopredators’ prey (desert rodents).2 These researchers observed that the introduction of wild dingoes into a habitat region increased the population of desert rodents. They further showed that the cause of the population increase was not just due to less predation by feral cats. They noted that the rodents increased their habitat breadth and the use of risky food patches.

Both the Yellowstone and Australian field studies have received criticism from other research groups for being overly simplistic and biased toward the larger animals and plants. In a review published in Nature, Emma Marris argues for combining bottom-up and top-down approaches to assessing ecological benefits and detriments.3 Bottom-up refers to analyzing how the small-bodied life-forms impact progressively larger bodied life-forms, while top-down analyzes how large-bodied life-forms impact progressively smaller bodied life-forms.

Marris and the studies she cites conclude that ecological relationships are extremely complex with a single species impacting several dozen or more species rather than just two or three. They note that if the full complexity of the relationships is not taken into account and understood, human intervention could result in diminished benefits or unintended detriments.

One published example of diminished benefits of human intervention is a field study done in Rocky Mountain National Park.4 The researchers compared two efforts to address elk overgrazing: (1) where humans in Rocky Mountain National Park culled elk and fenced off riparian environments; and (2) where in other parks wolves were reintroduced into the environment. The researchers noted that wolf reintroduction yielded superior results.

Another research report uncovered at least one reason why wolf reintroduction resulted in a superior outcome.5 They observed that prey animals respond differently to their natural predators than they do to humans. In particular, the fear response that the prey animals had to wolves had a much more dramatic impact on the behavior of the prey animals, and this behavior change had ripple effects that benefited a wide diversity of animal and plant species.

All of this new ecological research is teaching us just how remarkably complex and well designed natural, unspoiled ecosystems are. The fact that even our best efforts as ecosystem managers fall short in producing benefits shows us that Someone far more knowledgeable, intelligent, and powerful than us must be the One who established the ecological relationships in the first place. This conclusion is confirmed by the consistent observation that the mass speciation events that follow the mass extinction events seen in the history of Earth’s life reveal that ecological optimization appears immediately. I describe and document much more about this consistent pattern of ecological optimization and why it is necessary for human civilization to be possible in my new book, Improbable Planet.6

 

Endnotes

  1. Hugh Ross, “Benefits from Beavers,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog),  Reasons to Believe, February 1, 2012, www.reasons.org/articles/benefits-from-beavers; Hugh Ross, “Thank God for Beaver Dams,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog),  Reasons to Believe, February 6, 2012, www.reasons.org/articles/thank-god-for-beaver-dams.
  2. Christopher E. Gordon et al., “Mesopredator Suppression by an Apex Predator Alleviates the Risk of Predation Perceived by Small Prey,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282 (March 2015): 20142870, doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.2870.
  3. Emma Marris, “Rethinking Predators: Legend of the Wolf,” Nature 507 (March 2014): 158–60, doi:10.1038/507158a.
  4. Adam Hermans et al., “Wolf Reintroduction: Ecological Management and the Substitution Problem,” Ecological Restoration 32 (September 2014): 221–28.
  5. William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta, “Wolves and the Ecology of Fear: Can Predation Risk Structure Ecosystems?” BioScience 54 (August 2004): 755–66, doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2004)054[0755:WATEOF]2.0.CO;2.
  6. Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).

Subjects: Carnivores, Creation vs. Evolution, Life Design

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

About The Author

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. I also am eager to equip Christians to engage, rather than withdraw from or attack, educated non-Christians. One of the approaches I’ve developed, with the help of my RTB colleagues, is a biblical creation model that is testable, falsifiable, and predictive. I enjoy constructively integrating all 66 books of the Bible with all the science disciplines as a way to discover and apply deeper truths. 1 Peter 3:15–16 sets my ministry goal, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." Hugh Ross launched his career at age seven when he went to the library to find out why stars are hot. Physics and astronomy captured his curiosity and never let go. At age seventeen he became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver's Royal Astronomical Society. With the help of a provincial scholarship and a National Research Council (NRC) of Canada fellowship, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics (University of British Columbia) and graduate degrees in astronomy (University of Toronto). The NRC also sent him to the United States for postdoctoral studies. At Caltech he researched quasi-stellar objects, or "quasars," some of the most distant and ancient objects in the universe. Not all of Hugh's discoveries involved astrophysics. Prompted by curiosity, he studied the world’s religions and "holy books" and found only one book that proved scientifically and historically accurate: the Bible. Hugh started at religious "ground zero" and through scientific and historical reality-testing became convinced that the Bible is truly the Word of God! When he went on to describe for others his journey to faith in Jesus Christ, he was surprised to discover how many people believed or disbelieved without checking the evidence. Hugh's unshakable confidence that God's revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict became his unique message. Wholeheartedly encouraged by family and friends, communicating that message as broadly and clearly as possible became his mission. Thus, in 1986, he founded science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB). He and his colleagues at RTB keep tabs on the frontiers of research to share with scientists and nonscientists alike the thrilling news of what's being discovered and how it connects with biblical theology. In this realm, he has written many books, including: The Fingerprint of God, The Creator and the Cosmos, Beyond the Cosmos, A Matter of Days, Creation as Science, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, and More Than a Theory. Between writing books and articles, recording podcasts, and taking interviews, Hugh travels the world challenging students and faculty, churches and professional groups, to consider what they believe and why. He presents a persuasive case for Christianity without applying pressure. Because he treats people's questions and comments with respect, he is in great demand as a speaker and as a talk-radio and television guest. Having grown up amid the splendor of Canada's mountains, wildlife, and waterways, Hugh loves the outdoors. Hiking, trail running, and photography are among his favorite recreational pursuits - in addition to stargazing. Hugh lives in Southern California with his wife, Kathy, and two sons.



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