If you’re asking this question I’m really glad you’re here. In fact, you wouldn’t be here without wildlife. While that may seem like a heavy statement – it’s a true statement. Traditionally speaking wildlife encompasses all non-domesticated animals like birds, fox, bison, frogs, coyotes and so on. However, the term wildlife has come to envelope all kinds of undomesticated life from microorganisms to vegetation and fungi as well. The scope of wildlife is vast and there is no possible way to discuss the importance of each contributor to the ecological system as a whole in this article. The most important lesson to take away from this is that without wildlife – human life would not exist. Let’s discuss the fundamentals of wildlife and survival before we go on to other aspects of wildlife importance. It might be worth noting that a lot of the discussion here is based around scientific concepts of life.
If biology isn’t your thing, try this Introduction to Biology course for help understanding these topics.
Broadly speaking, ecology is the study of environmental systems and everything that resides within those environments. Ecology is particularly focused on how organisms living within an ecosystem interact with the living and non-living environment that surrounds them. An ecosystem is a community of natural bodies that live and work together in an interconnected web for survival. The best way to think about this is the food chain. In school we’re taught about how the lion eats the hyena, the hyena eats the coyote, the coyote eats rabbits, the rabbit eats vegetation and small insects and microorganisms eat vegetation – all of which require oxygen or sun to survive and all of which share a localized environment, or ecosystem. Each variable is interdependent on the other to continue the life cycle. It’s this circle of life that maintains the three areas of study within ecology – populations, ecosystems and communities – in balance.
Population ecology focuses on the variable amount of wildlife within an ecosystem and the distribution of that population. An example of this would be the study of Northern Pike in Colorado rivers and lakes. Northern Pike in Colorado are considered invasive which means they are non-native and threaten native organisms. It’s their population and distribution (organically or introduced) that is the focus of population ecologists. Because of their aggressive nature and size, these pike don’t have many natural predators in their non-native water sources. However, they are the predators who deplete certain water sources of other organic aquatic life. This decreases biodiversity which decreases the stability of the ecosystem (community). If you are a big fish consumer like me, read about the seven best and most sustainable fish you can eat. Below, I explain why an imbalanced ecosystem is important.
Ecosystem ecology is the general study of all living things in a defined environmental community (desert, arctic tundra, rainforest, ocean and so on) and it’s interaction with the abiotic, or non-living, environment. This would be like studying humans in LA and the effect of smog (abiotic variable) on their health.
Community ecology focuses on both of the above, ecosystems and populations, combined. The Northern Pike example is quite applicable here. High abundance of pike equates to a low biodiversity in the lake ecosystem which contributes to an increased dissolved oxygen (DO) prevalence which ultimately affects the livability of the lake for other aquatic life and can result in an eventual “dead zone” or water source eutrophication. Confusing? Yes. Pertinent? Extremely.
The food chain is a complex ecological model that represents the importance of wildlife not only for wildlife’s sake, but for the human race and society as a whole.
How are we involved?
Let’s take a step back for a second and think about the use of wildlife in human life. How are we dependent on wildlife? We – more often than not – wear clothes, we eat, we live in houses, we write on paper, we breathe air and we take medicine – just to name a few. So how do those things relate to wildlife and the continuous balance of ecosystems, populations and communities?
- The clothes we wear come from cotton, hemp or other plant fibers that are manufactured into wearable items. In ancient days, and still occasionally, clothes are crafted from the hide and fur of animals. Using plants for material is a sustainable practice. Cropping plants encourages new growth and new growth means availability of this resource.
- The food we eat, obviously, comes from animals and plants. If there was no one to eat eggs from chickens, all of those eggs could potentially hatch. If all of those eggs hatched, we’d have a serious chicken infestation on our hands. With that many chickens there needs to be an increase in natural predators to maintain the population, or an increase in human consumption. An abundance of any one animal can cause an imbalance in an ecosystem which can affect the environment at the global level. See recreation below for more details about this.
- The houses we build and live in are often constructed using wildlife resources like wood from trees. Many cultures around the world once constructed their houses using other natural resources like animal bones for tools, soil compositions for clay structures, and plant elements for shelter.
- The paper we write and print on comes from trees and other plant fibers. Remember to recycle because the more paper we use, the more deforestation occurs and the more this affects certain ecosystems.
- The air we breathe would be toxic if it weren’t for plant photosynthesis of which oxygen is a by-product. Phytoplankton play a huge role in eliminating carbon from our atmosphere and contributing to the dissolved oxygen levels of water. They are also considered a direct contributor to global warming and changes in atmospheric conditions. Learn more about Energy Economics and the Environment in this course. Who knew that such little organisms could have such a great impact on the condition of our world? Read more about phytoplankton from NASA in What Are Phytoplankton.
- Medicine would be reduced to chemically synthesized lab-projects that are considered unsafe for consumption. Recently, the FDA approved the use of Reishi and Turkeytail mushrooms for medicinal use. They have anti-cancer PSK properties that have proven successful in both prevention and treatment of cancer. Civilizations world-wide have been using plants for medicine since the beginning of time. Mushrooms also have soil restoration capabilities when nutrients are deficient and contaminants prevalent. Learn more about medicinal plants in the course How to Grow a Medicinal Food Forest.
Our environment promotes incredible biodiversity, and it’s this biodiversity that contributes directly to the sustainability of all life on the planet. As we already discussed, all life on the planet is interdependent. Every organism has a role that it plays in the bigger picture of life.
Nematodes are microscopic roundworms that are often found in gardens. Certain species of these microorganisms can be very beneficial to plant life. They are a vital component to compost which in turn creates valuable, nutritious soil for plants to grow in. Certain species of nematodes also feast on unwanted garden pests like spider mites, clearwing borers and chinch bugs – ultimately eliminating them. That’s good news for gardeners and good news for those of us who eat. Without beneficial parasites like nematodes, a lot of crops would be destroyed and a lot less produce would be available to us in the grocery store.
Earlier we talked about ecosystems and the importance of maintaining a balance within these communities. Why does it matter? Imbalanced ecosystems have detrimental effects on wildlife and humans (if you don’t consider us part of wildlife, wait, are we?). The study is a bit outdated but the facts still remain. The World Health Organization released a report in 2005 claiming the state of ecosystems worldwide are contributing to increased illness and mortality rates of populations throughout South America, Africa, and Asia. Factors like deforestation, natural disasters and animal migration are huge reasons why ecosystems become imbalanced. Deforestation causes native animals to relocate – bringing potential bacteria and illnesses with them to habitats that may be gravely affected by their presence. (Forest clearing fires in India caused Nipah virus carrying bats to flee to Malaysia where abundant farm-raised pigs became infected and passed the virus to humans.)
It’s through these unpredictable or miscalculated interferences that we begin to see how ecosystems directly affect the health of the human population. “Human health is strongly linked to the health of ecosystems, which meet many of our most critical needs,” explains Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department for the Protection of the Human Environment. Take a look at a healthy ecosystem in remote China in the course Mountain Plants of South-West China.
Importance of Wildlife Elsewhere
Besides basic survival and global health, wildlife plays an important role in other facets of life like economics and recreation.
A lot of cultures sustain themselves on the buying and selling of animal products or the animals themselves. Leather and fur are hot commodities, but so are goats and cows. In some communities these animals can be bartered in exchange for goods and services. Unfortunately, some wildlife dependent economics revolve around illegal industries like poaching. Poaching involves the unethical and highly illegal slaughtering of endangered or regulated animals – like elephants for their ivory tusks. Additionally, gardeners and farmers world-wide enjoy running businesses based on their ability to grow plants, flowers, food and market them to the public. Get started in your own gardening venture by taking this course on Organic Soil Growing.
On the flip side of illegal hunting (poaching) there is the legal kind of hunt. Game hunting is a widely enjoyed past time for many people around the world. Often the animals are used for their meat and hides, or their heads for trophies. While this sounds a bit sinister, hunting is actually a really resourceful way of population control. We discussed above about how out of control wildlife populations can wreak havoc on ecosystems and hunting is a well-organized solution to this problem. In many states hunters must register and receive tags for the animals they are hoping to shoot. This system provides a way for conservationists and biologists to monitor the current populations of certain animals while attaining population goals through legal hunting. In Bucks County, Pennsylvania the deer population is soaring. There are 8 bucks (male deer) to every doe (female deer) and the population is beginning to cause issues for the habitat (plant life is being destroyed) and for civilization (higher frequency of deer related car accidents).
Additional benefits to wildlife include bird watching, photography, fishing, hiking and the general aesthetics of living in a natural world. Want to be a wildlife photographer? Learn how to get close to these animals in Wildlife Photography.