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9 Foundation Species Examples (With Pictures)

The world teems with animals and plants that are specially adapted to their environments. From plains and forests to rivers and oceans, there’s a niche for every animal and an animal for every niche. Different climates, topography, weather, and temperature shape what traits an animal needs to successfully eat, sleep, and reproduce in the area. 

Every environmental region contains unique species of plants and animals, but some have bigger roles to play than others. Foundation species have a large positive effect on their surrounding environment, so much so that the entire ecosystem can suffer if they are removed. 

Today, we’ll take a look at the types of foundation species present in North American environments. These include any habitat in North America’s land and coastal regions. 

What is a foundation species? 

A foundation species is an organism that provides the building blocks of life for many other species that live in the same environment. Other organisms structure their lives around the foundation species’ interactions. 

Foundation species can be animals or plants, but plants are more common because they are the core of many environments, whether terrestrial or aquatic. In many cases, they establish a physical ecosystem that’s a trademark of the environment. 

Aquatic keystone species may provide structure and orientation for animals underwater. Other foundation species shape mountains and even the flow of rivers. It is easy to spot the influence of a foundation species because it affects its environment so dramatically. 

Why are Foundation Species Important? 

Foundation species provide the first structures of an ecosystem. They transform inhospitable or barren landscapes into lush, productive grasslands. Without giant kelp, otters would have little opportunity to hide from predators or hunt for fish. 

By going outside, you’re bound to see foundation species. Grasslands, forests, and swamps all contain this group of organisms. They make it possible for keystone species, another crucial group of animals, to survive and thrive in nature. 

9 Examples of Foundation Species

1. Corals 

Anthozoa | image by Carnat Joel via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Anthozoa

Corals are a foundational group of animal species because their skeletons support the entire frameworks of coral reefs. Their skeletons are made of calcium carbonate, a mineral that lasts long after they die. The ‘rocks’ that make up coral reefs are actually the old remains of long-dead coral. 

Corals also support rare fish, invertebrate, and crustacean populations. Reefs are some of the hotspots of biodiversity on planet Earth, and they support thousands of rare animals and aquatic plants

2. Giant Kelp 

Giant kelp
Giant kelp | image by Linking Tourism & Conservation via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Macrocystis pyrifera 

Even though Giant kelp is at the bottom of the food chain in its habitat zone along the California coast, it’s a crucial component to the success and health of the ecosystem. This living organism anchors into rocks off of the coasts and can grow up to 2 feet per day.

It looks like a plant, but in fact, but it is actually a type of brown algae which is considered neither plant, animal, nor fungi. Giant kelp is the largest type algae on the planet. 

3. American Beavers 

American Beaver on grass
American Beaver on grass | image by Marie Hale via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Castor canadensis 

The American beaver is less common or visible than many other species on this list. However, its unique habit of modifying the structure of its environment places it on this list. Beavers routinely change the shape of rivers and streams by damming narrow areas. 

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The ponds and lakes formed by their efforts can host migrating fowl, provide water sources for grazing herbivores, and affect the scope of nearby wetlands.

4. Elephants 

African elephant walking
African elephant walking

Scientific name: Loxodonta sp.

You might not expect the African elephant to be on this list, since they are much more rare than trees or even giant kelp. However, elephants effect major changes on their environments.

They knock over trees, wallow in mud pits, and consume tons of plant matter. Since elephants travel in herds, the changes wrought on an area by their passing is dramatic and long-lasting. 

While elephants aren’t native to North America, their ancestors were. Scientists believe that the mastodons and wooly mammoths that roamed the continent over 14,000 years ago exhibited similar behaviors like tree felling and wallowing. 

5. Earthworms

Common earthworm on dried leaves
Common earthworm on dried leaves | image by Donald Hobern via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Lumbricus terrestris

Earthworms are abundant, but did you know they are essential to the integrity of almost every North American ecosystem? These small invertebrates are efficient nutrient recyclers.

They burrow through dirt, scavenging and eating decaying plant and animal matter. The humble earthworm aerates the soil, making it easier for plants to take root and obtain nutrients. 

6. Ponderosa Pine Trees

Ponderosa pine tree
Ponderosa pine tree | image by slashvee via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientific name: Pinus ponderosa

The Ponderosa pines are a species of pine tree that’s most common in the Rocky Mountains of western North America. They dominate the landscape of high altitude forests, and are the most common tree in the area.

This tree achieves supremacy by way of its acidic pine needles. The acid leaks into the soil and prevents other plants’ seeds from germinating and ensures that the forest is made of mostly ponderosa pines. 

7. Maple Trees

Red maple trees along the road
Red maple trees along the road | image by Dushan Hanuska via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Acer sp. 

The eastern United States is home to one of the most popular and well-known trees in North America: the maple tree. Maple trees establish dominance in the temperate deciduous forests of that region, and for that reason, they are considered a foundation species.

They shed their leaves in the fall and winter. Over time, this creates rich leaf litter that makes the soil productive and nutritious for other plants and animals. 

8. Seagrass

Seagrass | image by Greenpeace Polska via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Scientific name: Zostera marina and others. 

The Seagrass is a common form of photosynthesizing plant life found on the coasts of continents worldwide. It’s common along the coasts of North America too. This plant is a foundation species because it captures silt and nutrients that are carried by rivers downstream.

It is most common at the mouths of deltas, where the rivers meet the sea. They are adapted to grow submerged in shallow water, where they provide food for herbivorous fish, shelter for small invertebrates, and oxygen for the aquatic ecosystem

9. Eastern Hemlock Trees

Eastern hemlock tree
Eastern hemlock tree | image by F. D. Richards via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Tsuga canadensis

Forests in the eastern United States are also home to the Eastern Hemlock tree. This tree is a foundation species in its biome, but it’s currently threatened by the wooly adelgid, an insect that kills the tree by sucking out its sap.

Foresters have measured increases in arthropods and other insects after the destruction of hundreds of eastern Hemlocks due to wooly adelgids. Without as many hemlock trees, the species distribution of the forest is likely to shift towards supporting grassland plants and spiders, beetles, and ants.

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Anna Lad

About Anna Lad

Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys studying and learning about wild birds and wildlife of all types.