Top of the Food Chain–Nobody’s Home

Art-like depiction of a coyote hunting by our barn
Art-like depiction of a coyote hunting by our barn

When the last ice age ended some twelve thousand years ago, our species began deciding who lived and who died in the animal world.

We kept the big herbivores. We began even then to eliminate the big carnivores.

And in our time, the process is nearing completion. Globally, more than 75% of large carnivores are in decline. Consequently, large and small herbivores are left to eat the leafy parts of habitats around the world. And this is turning out not to be a good thing–provided actual long-term habitat resiliency matters to anybody.

Many groups around the world are realizing that we can’t arbitrarily exterminate creatures that are inconvenient. We didn’t know enough about how this place works over the long term to have made such rash short-term decisions.

The consequence of no top of many natural food chains is what ecologists call “trophic collapse”–meaning that the weakest link of the chain is missing and things are falling apart. And not just on the Animal Planet.

Consider that the rodent population is closely tied to the numbers of foxes, coyotes, wolves and other mouse-and-rat eaters. Rodents are central to the transmission of Lyme Disease. We have sure had our share of that in Floyd County this year. How about where you live?

Meanwhile, many of us believe that the only good predator is a dead one. The Cowboy mentality dominates; and lion trophies still are a measure manhood–for the rich.

I won’t try to offer links since blog readers generally do not click them, but if you’re interested, you can find many reports during the past two months by searching DECLINE IN TOP PREDATORS.

IMAGE: a crude drawing (using Adobe Idea) upon the event of watching a beautiful coyote hunt moles just out my window last year.)

More Goose Creek encounters with the top of the food chain…

Predator-Prey On Parade    The Wild Life of Floyd     The Bear Went Over the Mountain

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. On another angle of what you speak…adding back in species that have gone(not being aware that the demise DID serve and have purpose). I often wonder at the concept of ‘help’ and then ‘must’. If I determine something a ‘help’, what have I missed in my angst to express myself and to splash my twisted wishes?

  2. I read a study not long ago (but can’t seem to find it now) about how the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park has resulted in a recovery of aspen, cottonwoods and willows that had been suppressed by decades of overbrowsing by elk.

  3. I missed thte Bear Went Over the Mountain when you first posted it. That was one exciting story! Ann must be pretty proud of her presence of mind, and its success. I hope she has the confidence in her skills at scaring bears that she still goes out there amongst them.

  4. Thank you, Fred, for writing this. I LOVE your illustration. Coyotes, our native “song-dogs,” not only kill rodents and clean up the carrion, but they also eat tons of insects and the smaller predators, such as raccoons, skunks and opossums, which have few other predators and prey on ground nesting birds (and their eggs). In areas where there are coyotes, there are often more bird species such as quail and wild turkeys. We pet and livestock owners have a responsibility to supervise our domestic animals and let the wildlife be.