Climate Action

What is a keystone species, and why do they matter?

Sea otters float on their backs in the waters of Prince William Sound near the town of Valdez, Alaska

Without the sea otter, which prevents sea urchins from overbreeding, kelp forests would be severely depleted. Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Jatinder Sidhu
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Keystone species hold together the complex web of relationships in an ecosystem.
  • They can be animals, plants or microorganisms.
  • Examples of keystone species include starfish, sea otters, wolves and elephants.

What happens when a top predator is removed from an ecosystem? The population it preyed upon, no longer kept in check, explodes, putting huge strain on the next organism down in the food chain. And so it goes on. Right?

In fact, it’s more complicated than that, as Robert Paine, the scientist who first described the keystone species concept in the 1960s, found.

Some organisms help to maintain balance and diversity in a complex ecosystem, and losing them doesn’t just affect the next species in the chain – everything looks different.

What is a keystone species?

In short, keystone species enable other species to survive, occupying a key role in the ecosystem they are part of. Without them, their ecosystems would be dramatically different or even cease to exist.

For example, Robert Paine conducted experiments on a patch of rocky coastline in the Pacific Northwest of the United States in which he took out the top predator, the starfish.

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Within months, one species of barnacle, and then another type of barnacle, and then later a mussel, had become the dominant species. The succession of proliferating species wiped out their main food source, algae, prompting limpets and other species to migrate away from the area due to a lack of prey and space. Overall, biodiversity plummeted – the number of species went from 15 to eight.

In a seminal 1966 research paper, Paine explained what had happened by designating the starfish as a keystone species, which influences lower levels of the food web, preventing species from monopolizing resources including space and food.

Examples of keystone species

A keystone species can be an animal, plant or microorganism. Coral is instrumental in creating diverse reef ecosystems. In the plant kingdom, keystone species include mangrove trees, which support shorelines from erosion and provide protective habitats for small fish and other organisms.

Other keystone species include the sea otter, which eats sea urchins, and they in turn feed on kelp. Without the sea otter, which prevents sea urchins from overbreeding, kelp forests – which sustain a variety of other species – would be severely depleted.

A one day old wild sea otter pup lies with its mother inside the Great Tide Pool at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, December 21, 2015. It is not uncommon for sea otters to give birth in the tide pool's protected basin. The newborn pup is estimated to weigh a couple of pounds according to aquarium staff. REUTERS/Michael Fiala - TM3EBCL1FTL01
Sea otters play an important role in maintaining marine ecosystems. Image: REUTERS/Michael Fiala

The grey wolf was largely wiped out of the contiguous United States in the early 1900s, resulting in a surge in the numbers of elk. In Yellowstone National Park, elk and deer overgrazed on trees, grasses, reeds and other plants, putting intense pressure on animals dependent on plant life, including fish, beavers and birds. Wolves also indirectly feed eagles, coyotes and bears who scavenge leftover carcasses.


How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

Ecosystem engineering

In addition to predators, there are other keystone species responsible for maintaining or producing distinct habitats. These “ecosystem engineers” include beavers, which remove dead trees along riverbanks and create dams that divert water creating wetland habitats.

Elephants are another example. They trample forests and dense grasslands, supporting the growth of smaller species. And they travel vast distances, dispersing seeds in their dung, thus supporting vegetation growth. Some research suggests elephants could disperse seeds up to 65km, which helps to maintain the genetic diversity of many tree species and prevents local inbreeding.

Preserving the balance

The concept of the keystone species helps ecologists explain the delicate, intricate web of interactions which sustain any given ecosystem.

It also helps conservationists argue in favour of mitigating human impacts in order to protect species, and the complex ecosystems they hold together.

Because, ultimately, without keystone species, many species would suffer – including us.

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