When we think of the environment, we tend to think of trees, lakes, the ocean, mountains and rivers. We often fail to consider the animals who call these places home — or if we do, we may just think of them as inhabitants. But the truth is, there are many animals who actively help the environment.
Among these animals who help the environment are elephants, narwhals, bats and worms. Unfortunately, many of these are also threatened by human activities. While the many ways animals help humans and the environment are not the only reason wild animals are important, failing to protect them could spell environmental disaster.
How Do Animals Help the Environment?
Animals play an essential role in maintaining a healthy environment. They help contribute as pollinators, controlling pests and even mitigating climate change.
Animals Who Help the Environment
Bats Act as Natural Pesticides
Just one colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in Texas consisting of 20 million bats is capable of eating 220 tons of insects in a single night. This is possible because each bat is capable of eating up to 1,000 insects per hour.
Bat species play a vital role in maintaining insect populations and helping to control pest populations, such as mosquitoes. Their role is especially important to the agricultural sector, where insects can cause disease in animals and destroy crops. Every year, bats contribute $3.7 billion in pest control services to agriculture in North America.
Bat Populations Are Declining
Per the 2023 State of the Bats North America report, bats are facing significant threats in the form of habitat destruction, climate change, wind energy and disease. According to the report, 98 percent of bat species are losing habitat. Agriculture, mining and fires are among some of the activities driving the destruction.
White-nose syndrome is decimating bat populations, killing 90 percent of little brown, northern long-eared and tri-colored bats. Though these three species are most heavily affected, the disease can infect 12 different species while they hibernate.
Beavers Combat Climate Change
The behavior of beavers and their tendency to alter landscapes means that they often have large impacts on the environment.
Beavers play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change. When a beaver moves in, the dam that they build helps hold essential waters in place, keeping them from drying up or running off. Not only do their dams help to preserve water, but they also provide important habitats, creating a haven for biodiversity.
Beavers Prevent Fires
Beaver dams and the ponds they create help to keep the soil moist, and green vegetation alive. These traits in turn help to prevent wildfires — even in droughts. Every year, wildfires account for between 5-10 percent of CO2 emissions. The more fires prevented, the less CO2 that will be emitted into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, despite the many environmental benefits of beavers and their dams, they are often viewed as pests — sometimes even having their dams destroyed in order to limit conflicts with people.
Bees Are Powerful Pollinators
Bees and other pollinating insects play a critical role in the food chain. In fact, bees may play a direct role in one out of every three bites of food we eat, as the tiny insects spend most of their lives collecting pollen.
Because an individual bee focuses on one species of flower when collecting pollen, they are likely to spread pollen from one plant to another of the same species. In addition to the essential role that bees play in agriculture, their activity also supports the pollination of a variety of wild plant species.
Birds Balance Nature
With so many different species, it’s not surprising that birds do numerous things that help balance nature. Most species perform pest control by eating insects and burying seeds that will go on to grow into trees and other plants. Vultures act as nature’s clean-up crew by eating carcasses.
Butterflies Help Pollinate
Though not as efficient as bees, butterflies pollinate a variety of flowering plants. The insects will land on flowers in search of nectar, and in the process, they are likely to pick up pollen, which is then transported to other plants. Butterflies prefer wildflowers with flat faces that grow in clusters, providing ample reward for their efforts.
Elephants Create a Source of Water for Other Species
Elephants play a critical role in their native habitat. During times of drought, elephants dig up dry waterbeds, creating watering holes for themselves and other species. In addition to this, elephants also eat plants and disperse the seeds, fresh and fertilized, in their dung.
Not only do elephants create watering holes in times of drought, they also help mitigate climate change by consuming particular types of trees. Instead of eating large trees that hold the greatest amount of carbon, elephants tend to prefer smaller trees.
Fish Excrement Helps the Ocean’s Climate
Fish feces are one of the most efficient mechanisms for long-term carbon storage. The feces can lock carbon away for 600 years. Unfortunately, due to overfishing, the number of fish and the amount of fish feces present in the water has decreased, negatively impacting the amount of carbon being stored in feces.
Llamas Patrol Farms
Llamas are naturally prone to protect the animals they bond with. For this reason, they make excellent guardians for farmed animals and farms. Including a llama in a flock of sheep protects against predation from coyotes and stray dogs, while also avoiding the use of more drastic measures, such as trapping. The presence of a llama allows the sheep to spend time outside in a field without fear of predation.
Narwhals Assist Scientists
Narwhals have proven invaluable for scientists seeking to understand the melting ice in the ocean surrounding Greenland. Much of the coast of Greenland is covered in ice year-round, making it virtually inaccessible to human researchers and their vessels.
Scientists are studying the narwhals who visit the research area as part of their migration. By tagging just 14 narwhals with sensors, scientists have been able to gather data on water salinity, depth and temperature, as well as learn more about narwhal behavior.
Otters Help Kelp Forests
Kelp contributes to a healthy marine ecosystem by providing a natural habit for a plethora of sea life. Unfortunately, off the coast of California, kelp forests are in jeopardy, with sea urchins largely to blame.
Enter sea otters. As sea urchins’ natural predators, otters help to protect kelp forests by keeping urchin population levels from exploding.
Rats Detect Landmines
African giant pouched rats, which can grow to be up to nine pounds, are often trained to sniff out landmines and alert their handler so that the mines can be deactivated, preventing casualties.
One recent rat retiree, Magawa, was able to clear 2.4 million square feet of land, and find 71 landmines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance over a four-year career. Estimates suggest that rats like Magawa have been able to relieve one million people from living in fear of landmines.
Tapir Help Regenerate Rainforests
Tapir defecate a lot, a trait that can help regenerate rainforest after a fire. That’s because along with the nutrients in their feces are valuable seeds. While many animals help spread seeds this way, what makes tapirs especially helpful is that they seem to prefer burned areas.
According to researchers, tapirs were seen twice as often in burned areas than in forested ones. But more than that, triple the number of seeds were found in their dung. That means that in burned areas, tapir were leaving behind almost 10,000 seeds, fertilizer included.
Sharks Prevent Disease from Spreading Among Marine Life
When hunting, sharks tend to prey upon sick and injured animals. By taking ill individuals out of the population, they are preventing other animals from falling victim to diseases.
Squirrels Help Trees Take Root
Because they gain most of their energy from them, squirrels collect seeds from a variety of plants and bury them. Often, squirrels will forget where they hid their provisions, essentially sowing new trees and plants as they go. This activity helps to expand and alter the makeup of forests, replenishing the ecosystem.
Worms Keep the Ground Fertile
Earthworms play a large role in keeping soil healthy. They contribute heavily to aeration, infiltration, structure, nutrient cycle, water movement and plant growth. As they move through the dirt, the tunnels they leave behind allow water and air into the soil.
Which Endangered Animals Help the Environment?
Unfortunately, several of the animals on this list are currently endangered. Elephants, several species of sharks, some bats, certain types of bees and several varieties of birds are all considered endangered.
All of the species on this list are facing pressure from human activity. Whether their habitat is being destroyed to make way for pasture land or they are being killed by pesticides, human activity is wreaking havoc.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
Why Are Animals Important to Humans and the Environment?
Every animal plays an important role in maintaining a healthy environment. The removal of just one species can have lasting impacts that can be irreversible, and even trigger the loss of other species.
As humans, we rely heavily on every animal to help maintain a healthy environment with fresh air, water and land. Each species lost due to human interference can bring us one step closer to irreparable ecological damage.
Which Animal Is the Most Helpful to the Environment?
Wild animals are adapted to live in harmony with the environment in which they reside. Removing any single animal can send shocks through the environment due to the interconnectedness of biomes.
Though numerous animals help to combat climate change, perhaps the one species that stands to help the environment most is also causing the most harm: humans. At the end of the day, continuing to degrade, deforest and destroy the environment through factory farming, air and water pollution, and unchecked expansion cannot be undone by animals, no matter how hard they try.
Which Animals Play a Role in Food Security?
Animals are an integral part of food systems. Earthworms aerate soil, providing pathways for water and nutrients, while insects such as bees and butterflies contribute as pollinators. Birds and bats help by keeping destructive pests at bay.
Unfortunately, instead of working in collaboration with wild animals using regenerative techniques, most farmers apply large amounts of chemicals that destroy their habitats.
The Bottom Line
The rate of animal extinction is accelerating, with one million species currently threatened with extinction. The loss of these animals will have unprecedented and irreversible impacts on the environment. Some of the largest drivers of extinction are overexploitation and habitat loss. It’s important for not just environmental health, but for the public, that the animals who help the environment are protected along with their habitats.
There are ways you can eat to support wildlife. One of the most important things you can do is to reduce your meat and dairy intake — and shift to a plant-rich diet instead.
This piece has been updated.
Grace is a journalist who covers farming and agricultural policy, including how factory farms impact environmental and human rights in her writing. Her reporting has been published in Truthdig, the Good Men Project and Sentient Media. Born, raised and living near the Florida Coast, she holds her MS in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University. She can be reached by email to [email protected].