How Threatened Species Can Save the Planet

A western red-backed Salamander
A western red-backed SalamanderTim Zurowski / Getty Images

Many scientists believe Earth is in the middle of a “mass extinction” as we lose dozens of species — from the woodland bison of West Virginia to the Rocky Mountain grasshopper — every day, with 99 percent of the losses attributable to human activities, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

As Dr. Russ Mittermeier notes in a new study and an opinion piece on Conservation.org, our battle with climate change is so often focused on human well-being that it “often overlooks the fundamental role of species in keeping natural systems functioning.” In other words, to maintain stability on our planet — from the cleanliness of our waterways to the health of the soil that grows our food — we need to focus on the animals.

From the just-released study published in Current Biology, here are some prime examples of ways that some of the thousands of threatened species help us keep the planet stable. 

Salamanders Stop CO2 Release
Woodland salamanders, many of which are found in the U.S., eat insects that tear apart and eat leaf matter, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More salamanders means fewer insects and more leaves decomposing into the earth rather than ending up in the air. But most salamanders are on the decline, Mittermeier notes.

Mussels and Clams Keep Water Systems Clean
Marine bivalves like mussels and clams filter-feed and clean their watery environments, removing and digesting small particles and dissolved oxygen as water passes over their gills. By one estimate, it would cost us as much as $99,000 per hectare to clean the water which oyster beds currently maintain for free. Over half of the 300 mussel species in North America are threatened with extinction and a further 37 species are already presumed extinct, according to the Cambridge University Zoo.

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Wooly Monkeys and Red-Footed Tortoises Plant Forests 
In rainforests, large fruit-eating animals like monkeys, toucans, and tortoises eat the seeds of hardwood trees and disperse them in their feces. Some trees actually won’t germinate unless their seeds have passed through the gut of the cassowary bird. Those hardwood trees, in turn, are some of the most effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Vultures Suppress Disease
A prime example of the import of vultures came in India in the 1990s, with the inadvertent poisoning and death of 99 percent of vultures. This resulted in an increase in feral dogs, also scavengers, which had less competition for food. More feral dogs brought a surge of rabies cases throughout India.

Birds and Bees Make Farmers Billions
Pollinators, including bats, birds, monkeys, and bees, carry billions of dollars of value. According to a 2012 Cornell study, insects in the U.S. alone contribute $29 billion to farm income each year. Apples, almonds, blueberries, cherries, oranges, and squash directly depend on insects for pollination. Without insect pollinators, these plants could not bear fruit, and the billions of dollars farmers make each year on their sale would disappear. 

Fiddler Crabs Save Marshes
Fiddler crabs burrowing in saltwater coastal wetlands like Narragansett Bay increase soil drainage, water quality, and below-ground decomposition of plant debris, which increases productivity in the marsh. They also increase leaf production, trunk diameter, and height of mangrove trees — as well as taking out destructive species like marsh periwinkle snails, which can decimate grass populations during drought.

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