Looking Out for Our Endangered Allies
Advocacy Everyone knows that it’s important to protect wildlife. But if someone asked you why, could you answer—or would you believe that fighting climate change is one reason?
Species have a crucial role to play in ensuring a stable climate. But this role is often overlooked when researchers or governments assign values to the benefits that nature provides, such as fresh water, food supply and recreation.
This could lead us to underestimate the threat that the looming extinction crisis poses to life as we know it.
Take the humble salamander: these amphibians are often overshadowed by their noisier frog relatives, but chances are they live in your back yard—more salamander species exist in the U.S. than anywhere else.
Woodland salamanders play an important role in the carbon cycle by eating the insects that tear apart and eat leaves, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. With fewer insects, more leaves stay on the ground, decomposing and directing their carbon into the soil instead of the air, where it contributes to climate change.
The bad news? Many salamander populations appear to be declining.
Another example involves tropical fruits.
As a primatologist, I’ve spent more than 45 years working in tropical forests and have seen firsthand the role of large fruit-eating animals, or “frugivores,” in dispersing the seeds of hardwood trees. This includes primates such as spider monkeys but also large birds such as toucans, curassows and even forest-dwelling tortoises.
When you eat a fruit, you eat around the pit or seed. Not so for many of these animals. Rather than removing the edible part from the seed—a laborious process—many animals simply swallow the fruit whole, digest the sweet part and then disperse the seed in their feces. Some seeds, in fact, won’t even grow unless they have passed through the gut of one of these animals.
Links in the chain
It turns out that only these animals can disperse some of the hardwood seed species that are most effective in removing carbon from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, many of these animals are heavily hunted and in some cases no longer exist in some forests. Remove these species, and before long you reduce the potential of these forests to slow climate change.
It’s clear that the risks of ignoring the role of species are potentially huge. In the words of Aldo Leopold, an early conservationist: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”