An apex predator, also known as a top predator, is a
Apex predators are usually defined in terms of
Apex predators have a long evolutionary history, dating at least to the Cambrian period when animals such as Anomalocaris dominated the seas.
Humans have for many centuries interacted with apex predators including the wolf, birds of prey, and cormorants to hunt game animals, birds, and fish respectively. More recently, humans have started interacting with apex predators in new ways. These include interactions via ecotourism, such as with the tiger shark, and through rewilding efforts, such as the proposed reintroduction of the Iberian lynx.
Effects on community
Effects on ecosystem
Apex predators can have profound effects on ecosystems, as the consequences of both controlling prey density and restricting smaller predators, and may be capable of self-regulation.
Because apex predators have powerful effects on other predators, herbivores, and plants, they can be important in nature conservation. Humans have hunted many apex predators close to extinction, but in some parts of the world, these predators are now returning. They are increasingly threatened by climate change. For example, the polar bear requires extensive areas of sea ice to hunt its prey, typically seals, but climate change is shrinking the sea ice of the Arctic, forcing polar bears to fast on land for increasingly long periods.
Dramatic changes in the
Human trophic level
Ecologists have debated whether humans are apex predators. For instance, Sylvain Bonhommeau and colleagues argued in 2013 that across the global food web, a fractional human trophic level (HTL) can be calculated as the mean trophic level of every species in the human diet, weighted by the proportion which that species forms in the diet. This analysis gives an average HTL of 2.21, varying between 2.04 (for Burundi, with a 96.7% plant-based diet) and 2.57 (for Iceland, with 50% meat and fish, 50% plants). These values are comparable to those of non-apex predators such as the anchovy or pig.
However, Peter D. Roopnarine criticized Bonhommeau's approach in 2014, arguing that humans are apex predators and that the HTL was based on terrestrial farming where indeed humans have a low trophic level, mainly eating producers (crop plants at level 1) or primary consumers (herbivores at level 2), which as expected places humans at a level slightly above 2. Roopnarine instead calculated the position of humans in two marine ecosystems, a Caribbean coral reef and the
In 2021, Miki Ben-Dor and colleagues compared human biology to that of animals at various trophic levels. Using metrics as diverse as tool use and acidity of the stomach, they concluded that humans evolved as apex predators, diversifying their diets in response to the disappearance of most of the megafauna that had once been their primary source of food.
Apex predators are thought to have existed since at least the Cambrian period, around 500 million years ago. Extinct species cannot be directly determined to be apex predators as their behavior cannot be observed, and clues to ecological relationships, such as bite marks on bones or shells, do not form a complete picture. However, indirect evidence such as the absence of any discernible predator in an environment is suggestive. Anomalocaris was an aquatic apex predator, in the Cambrian. Its mouthparts are clearly predatory, and there were no larger animals in the seas at that time.
Among more recent fossils, the saber-tooth cats, like Smilodon, are considered to have been apex predators in the Cenozoic.
Interactions with humans
Humans hunted with apex predators in the form of wolves, and in turn with
Eagles and falcons, which are apex predators, are used in falconry, hunting birds or mammals. Tethered cormorants, also top predators, have been used to catch fish.
In some densely populated areas like the British Isles, all the large native predators like the wolf, bear, wolverine and lynx have become locally extinct, allowing herbivores such as deer to multiply unchecked except by hunting. In 2015, plans were made to reintroduce lynx to the counties of Norfolk, Cumbria, and Northumberland in England, and Aberdeenshire in Scotland as part of the rewilding movement. The reintroduction of large predators is controversial, in part because of concern among farmers for their livestock. Conservationists such as Paul Lister propose instead to allow wolves and bears to hunt their prey in a "managed environment" on large fenced reserves.
- ^ However, humans had a network trophic level (NTL) of 4.27 in the coral reef system, compared to an NTL of 4.8 for the blacktip shark in the same system. Therefore, humans were not the topmost apex predator there.
- ^ Its trophic level would be exactly 4 if the fish's prey were pure herbivores, higher if the prey were themselves carnivorous.
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