Animals play a much larger role in maintaining a healthy environment than they are often given credit for. The loss of just one species can have a ripple effect on entire ecosystems causing irreparable damage that can often go unpredicted. For example, a plant-eating insect going extinct means that the plant populations that it once controlled can grow rampant and choke out other plant species. The animals who depended on the other plants for food or shelter in turn do not have enough food and are at risk of extinction themselves.
How Do Animals Help the Environment?
Animals play an essential role in maintaining a healthy environment. Among other ways, they help with pollination, pest control, and climate control. Read on for just a sampling of some interesting ways that animals support the environment that we enjoy.
Animals Who Help the Environment
Bats Are Natural Pesticides
Scientists have discovered that bats can eat up to 1,000 insects in an hour. Just one colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in Texas consisting of 20 million bats is capable of eating 220 tons (or 55 elephants worth) of insects in a single night! Bat species play a vital role in maintaining insect populations and helping to control pest populations, such as mosquitoes. This role is perhaps most important to the agricultural sector where insects can cause disease in animals and destroy crops. The value that bats supply for the agricultural industry in the role that they play in pest control has been estimated to be over 3.7 billion a year in North America alone.
Bat Populations Are Declining
Unfortunately, bats are disappearing. Their decline in population is being driven by habitat loss, disturbance during hibernation, and disease. Bats are also likely being threatened by the use of chemical pesticides. Research that sampled bat tissue for contamination of pesticides found that all sampled bats, all of which originated in the Indiana region of the United States, tested positive for at least one type of pesticide. The presence of pesticides within bat tissue brings up serious questions pertaining to the impacts of environmental toxins on bat populations.
Beavers Combat Climate Change
The behavior of beavers and their tendency to alter landscapes means that they often have large impacts on the environment.
Increasing temperatures have allowed beavers to move into areas that previously would have been covered by ice and thus impractical for beavers. This increase in beaver populations and associated ponds created by their dams increases water temperature and melts ice more quickly.
Beaver Prevent Fires
Beaver dams and the ponds that 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 and 10 percent of CO2 emissions. The more fires can be prevented the less CO2 will be emitted into the atmosphere.
The wetlands created by beaver dams also hold an astounding amount of carbon dioxide. The existing beaver ponds store an estimated 470,000 tons of carbon a year. In addition to the positive impact that they have on the environment, beaver dams also play a critical role for other wildlife, as they provide a reliable source of water.
Unfortunately, despite the many environmental benefits of beavers and their dams; they are often viewed as pests. This often results in beaver dams being destroyed and beavers being trapped and killed.
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. The tiny insects are capable of this feat, as they spend most of their lives collecting pollen. An individual bee tends to focus on one species of flower when collecting pollen meaning that 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
The roles that birds play in supporting nature and the environment are numerous. They perform pest control by eating insects, certain species act as nature’s clean-up crew by eating carcasses, and they even contribute to plant growth and protect against erosion by burying seeds that will grow into trees with roots that anchor the soil. Birds also support economies, as their beauty is enough to draw tourists from around the world.
Butterflies Help Pollinate
Though not as efficient as bees, butterflies contribute to the pollination of a variety of flowering plants. Butterflies will land on flowers in search of nectar; in the process, they often pick up pollen which is then transported to other plants. They 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 will dig up dry waterbeds, creating watering holes for themselves and other species. In addition to this, elephants will also eat plants and disperse the seeds, fresh and fertilized, in their dung.
Fish Excrement Helps the Oceans 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 animals who 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 preventing the use of more drastic measures such as trapping. The sheep are able 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. Because much of the coast of Greenland is covered in ice year-round making it virtually inaccessible to human researchers and their vessels, scientists turned to narwhals who visit the research area as part of their migration. By tagging fourteen narwhals with sensors, scientists have been able to gather data on water salinity, depth, and temperature as well as learn more about narwhal behavior.
Octopi Are Avid Recyclers
The intelligence of octopi is undeniable. One trait that shows how smart the animals are is their ability to repurpose items that they find. They have been known to reuse everything from pieces of plastic and seashells to coconut halves discarded into the water. Researchers in Indonesia deemed the use of coconut halves as mobile homes by octopi as the first “intelligent” use of tools by an invertebrate. The animals were able to locate two of a similar size, stack them together, and move with them for distances of up to 20 meters (about 65 feet).
Rats Detect Landmines
African giant pouched rats, which can group 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.
Seals and Sea Lions Help Us Understand the Effects of Climate Change
Seals and sea lions depend upon certain species of fish and marine life to support their survival. When temperatures change these animals change their schooling locations making it more difficult for seals and sea lions to prey upon them. In 2015, record warm water temperatures in California caused an increase in the number of sick sea lions on the beach due to mothers leaving behind their young for longer periods of time to go further from shore to hunt.
Another impact of climate change being felt by sea lions is sickness due to algal blooms. These blooms are made more severe by climate change. The increased severity leads to sickness in sea lions that causes disorientation and, if left untreated, can result in permanent brain damage and even death.
Sharks Prevent Disease From Spreading Among Marine Life
Sharks are apex predators of the oceans meaning that they play a key role in maintaining a healthy balance of species. If remove from the environment, it is likely that some species would reproduce unchecked, potentially leading to the destruction of coral reefs and other biomes. Sharks also play a key role in disease mitigation, as they prey primarily upon weak and sick animals reducing the likelihood that disease is spread widely.
Squirrels Help Trees Take Root
Squirrels act as nature’s gardeners. Because they gain most of their energy from trees, squirrels collect them from a variety of plants and bury them. Often the squirrel will forget where they hid their provisions, essentially sowing new trees and plants to replenish ecosystems. Their activity can even expand forests and alter the makeup of plant species.
Worms Keep the Ground Fertile
Earthworms are perhaps the most important animal when it comes to maintaining soil health. The animals contribute heavily to aeration, infiltration, structure, nutrient cycle, water movement, and plant growth. They also help to decompose organic matter as they eat their way through the soil consuming microorganisms as they go. The tunnels they leave behind can last for extended periods of time providing a variety of benefits including aeration and allowing more water and air into the soil.
What Are the Endangered Animals Who Help the Environment?
Every animal plays an important role in maintaining a healthy environment. The removal of just one can have lasting impacts that can be irreversible. Losing just one species can trigger the loss of other species that depended upon the other. As humans, we rely heavily on every animal to help maintain a healthy environment with fresh air, water, and land. Every species lost is one step closer to irreparable ecological damage.
The rate of animal extinction is accelerating with one million species threatened with extinction. The loss of these animals will have unprecedented and irreversible impacts on the environment. Some of the largest drivers of extinction or overexploitation and habitat loss. Thankfully, there are steps we can take to reduce the impact we have on threatened and endangered species. One such step is to eat more organic, plant-based foods that are grown without harmful pesticides. Doing so can reduce the land needed for animal agriculture.
Grace is an animal advocate with a passion for social justice within the animal protection movement.