Stucker compiled a list of 10 animals from different environments, pointing out how each one helps support its ecosystem. – Wildan Al Gifari // Shutterstock
These climate hero animals are restoring habitats and revitalizing ecosystems
You might be surprised to learn how much of our world is shaped by animals doing unremarkable things like scratching, digging, eating, and pooping. Especially poop. These actions are the first in a chain of events that lead to very complex, biodiverse ecosystems.
Some species, because of their unique skills, food choices or even size, are the backbone of an ecosystem – take them out of the equation and the ecosystem collapses. Without mussels, you may not have clean drinking water. Without forest elephants, carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere would increase dramatically. And if you think an otter’s appetite for a sea urchin isn’t affecting your life, think again.
In a world where nature works together to stay in balance, human-caused climate change is like a counterweight thrown from the roof of a building, threatening more than 1 million kinds worldwide. People are responsible for change almost 100% of Earth’s terrestrial ecosystemsaccording to a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change.
These changes are damaging the ecosystems on which humanity depends. Now, animals like the beaver, which are all too easy to dismiss as trivial or unimportant from our point of view, may be one of our best hopes for saving the climate.
stacker compiled a list of 10 animals from different environments, pointing out how each of them helps to maintain their ecosystem.
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Beavers are revered as nature’s civil engineers, a species with the ability to reshape entire ecosystems with the dams they build. Beavers block moving water, creating a pond in which they settle. When it encounters an obstacle, the flowing water on the opposite side of the dam is diverted to the surrounding land, creating wetlands and attracting new flora and fauna to the ecosystem. While some people, especially farmers, may understandably view this freelance construction as a nuisance, it can save lives in dry areas.
Dams prevent the depletion of water sources and their complete drying up. The wetlands created by the spill are extinguishing arid land that would otherwise be at risk of wildfires. They are so effective in combating climate change-induced drought that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife donated $3 million to restore the habitat of North American beavers so that they can cause more trouble in turn.
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Freshwater mussels act like tiny water treatment plants, filtering out pollutants like algae and bacteria from rivers and streams. A layer of mussels the size of two football fields can filter up to 10 million gallons water daily and research in Alaska shows that they really reach such sizes. This service supports the health of their freshwater companions. Mussels themselves can also serve as aquatic ecosystems. Stacked together at the bottom of rivers, streams, or lakes, they create a physical structure in which beneficial algae can thrive and fish can feed. As water temperatures rise due to climate change, 70% of all mussels in the US are seriously endangered. Without freshwater mussels, humans and animals would face river pollution and significant changes to freshwater ecosystems.
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Sea otters are much more than cute faces and buffoonish ways. They are needed to protect coastal kelp forests. Adult sea otters eat up to 30% of their body weight (or 25 pounds) each day, feeding on abalone, crabs, clams, and most importantly, sea urchins. Without sea otters to keep their populations in check, urchins can destroy kelp forests, destroying the underwater ecosystem, which is an important carbon dioxide store where many other marine species thrive. Coastal ecosystems such as kelp remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store approximately 20 times more carbon per acre than ground forests. Without sea otters, there would be no seaweed; without laminaria, carbon sequestration will fall.
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Armadillos perform many important ecological functions such as pest control, seed dispersal, and even protection of other species. Like the beaver, South America’s giant armadillo is an ecosystem engineer. Extensive burrows are used, which they dig for shelter and hunting for beetles. dozens of other types for warmth, feeding and protection from predators. Even the piles of sand and mud displaced by armadillos when excavating burrows are used by other species as places to rest or sunbathe. These smaller ecosystems and the biodiversity they contribute are integral to the overall health of the larger ecosystem in which they exist.
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Hornbills are frugivorous animals whose diet consists almost exclusively of raw fruits. Some species of hornbills grow up to 6 feet in wingspan. Their size compared to other frugivorous birds makes them ideal spreaders of large-fruited plants. Without the hornbill, the gardens of Canaria and Phoebe would not exist. During flight, they spread intact seeds through their excrement over vast distances, earning them the nickname “forest farmer”. A study published in the Journal of Avian Biology found that hornbill populations can disperse nearly 13,000 seeds per day on an area the size of 184 football fields. Their dispersal contributes to the ecological prosperity and diversity of tropical forests.
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African forest elephants
These giant forest dwellers protect the environment by destroying it – to a certain extent. As these massive creatures move through dense rainforests, they trample and graze small trees and thin out vegetation that competes for resources such as sunlight and water. Field researchers in the Congo Basin found that where forest elephants lived, the trees were bigger and thicker. These types of trees are critical to the environment as they store large amounts of carbon. If forest elephants were to disappear tomorrow, 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide would be released – the equivalent of over 646,000 gas-powered cars produced in a year, or over 7 trillion miles driven by such cars. Forest elephants also help spread the seeds throughout the forest through their feces.
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bison significant conservation of America’s grassland biodiversity; they do this primarily while eating. Bison create an opportunity for new flora to grow by feeding almost exclusively on grasses that out-compete most other plants for space. Their presence in the meadows doubles plant diversity, according to the biological station Konza Prairie. The biodiversity of plant species makes ecosystems more resilient to drought. These regions recover after the species has been hunted almost to extinction by the late 1800s, they were being killed for profit, sport, and as a means of harming Native Americans who depended on bison. Bison parts can be turned into 150 different itemsincluding food, clothing, tools, and weapons that were essential to the survival of Native Americans on the Great Plains.
They also shape the environment by scratching. Yes, it scratches. An adult male bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds; adult females can weigh up to 1,200 pounds. When they wallow or roll on the ground to scratch themselves, their powerful bodies create depressions in the ground. These depressions create a buffer – a kind of bunker – from a wide open plain where plant and animal species are more protected from threats.
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As climate change shortens the length and intensity of winter, gray wolves mitigation of impacts on scavenging species like bears, coyotes, and some large birds, increasing their food supply. Milder winters mean increased survival rates for prey like elk due to lower metabolic load and fewer winter stressors, according to a study from the University of California, Berkeley. Less snow means they won’t die of starvation, and earlier melt means easier access to food sources. Wolves provide balance by preying on moose and leaving their remains to feed on scavengers.
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The world’s only scaly mammal, pangolins are integral to maintaining healthy forests by feeding on termites. While termites actually help maintain a healthy ecosystem by consuming dead wood and converting it into nutrient-rich organic matter called humus, an uncontrolled population can overrun the forest. One pangolin can protect about 31 football fields forests from termite damage. Pangolins also keep the soil healthy and aerated by burrowing, which promotes decomposition and revegetation.
Pangolins have been hunted almost to extinction due to myths about the healing and magical properties of their blood and scales, which are made of a material similar to our hair and nails, and do not provide any benefit to humans. In some regions of Asia, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy; in Africa it is sold as bushmeat. These creatures faced additional harassment when they were erroneously identified as a possible source of COVID-19.
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Like the other heroes on this list, tapirs are frugivorous. Seeds from food sources pass through their digestive tract and are eventually discarded on the forest floor along with their nutrient-rich waste products. Thus, frugivores are needed to restore a degraded environment and increase carbon stocks. Tapirs actually I prefer to feed in these degraded conditions. Thus, simply by performing daily functions such as eating and defecation, the tapir helps to sow and restore large stripes its habitats in the rainforests of South America, which have been disturbed by fires and deforestation.
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