Whether you’re on land or in the ocean, there is an abundance and variety of life. These organisms and animals vary depending on their environment. They also create unique ecosystems that are found almost everywhere on earth. While all species are an important part of the ecosystem, some are considered the cornerstone. Without these specific organisms, the ecosystem will dramatically change or even fall apart. Known as keystone species, they are irreplaceable and help keep the ecosystem healthy and thriving. In this article I’ll show you 28 examples of keystone species in North America.
First though, let’s learn a little bit more about what a keystone species is…
What is a Keystone Species?
A keystone species is an animal or organism that holds an ecosystem together. The loss of the organism results in the dramatic change or destruction of the ecosystem. A keystone species can be anything from fungi and other plants to herbivores, carnivores, and mutualists.
Keystone species are not always the most populous in the ecosystem. They are often not the largest either, but their role is crucial for the habitat’s survival. In essence, keystone species are the glue that binds the ecosystem together. If that species is removed, a chain of events is started that dramatically affects the habitat’s structure and biodiversity.
Even though these vital species differ according to their environment, they all have one aspect in common. Keystone animals influence the food chain that supports the habitat. Whether it is preventing soil erosion, keeping temperatures cooler, or keeping populations in check. These species are what balance the ecosystem.
Why are Keystone Species Important?
As the cornerstone of their ecosystem, the importance of keystone species cannot be understated. The organisms keep the habitat structure intact, along with the food web. Their importance is based on Robert T. Paine’s research, an American zoology professor.
His research on the removal of the Pisaster ochraceus sea star for the tidal plain on Tatoosh Island, located in Washington State had an enormous impact on the region’s ecosystem. The loss of the starfish allowed invasive mussels to push out other species. Benthic algae that supported limpets, sea snails, and bivalves were almost wiped out. Within 6 months, the biodiversity in the tidal plain was cut to half of its previous numbers.
Yellowstone National Park experienced a similar effect with the removal of the grey wolf. Elk herds rapidly increased destroying the vegetation. Soil erosion and warmer water temperatures were also recorded due to overgrazing. With the reintroduction of the Gray Wolf in the mid-1990s, the park’s ecosystem is slowly recovering.
Herbivores are also keystone species in certain ecosystems. Elephants are the cornerstone in a healthy savanna. The elephants graze and knockdown trees that if allowed to mature would eventually turn the savanna into a forest. Lions and hyenas would find it difficult to find prey, and smaller species like mice would not be able to burrow in the warm soil.
Two organisms can also work together to become keystone species. Bees work with flowers to spread pollen and gather nectar. Some plants in Patagonia only work with a specific hummingbird species. Without the presence of both, the woody grassland’s ecosystem would cease to exist as we know it.
28 keystone species examples in North America
You can find keystone species throughout North America, and each one is vital for the survival of their respective habitats.
This list shows 28 examples of keystone species in North America, and tells a little about each species and how they’re important to their respective ecosystem.
1. Sea Otters
Sea otters are coastal marine animals that inhabit sea-bottoms, rocky shores, and coastal wetlands. They look for areas with a lush kelp forest and plenty of food. Considered the top predator in a nearshore ecosystem, the animals discourage the presence of sea urchins that can decimate the kelp forests that are a food source and home to other marine animals.
2. Mountain Lions
Mountain lions can live in a variety of ecosystems that include mountains, wetlands, forests, and deserts. Due to the big cats’ territorial nature, they need a large habitat to thrive. Previously, before hunting and human expansion due to the animals from their range, mountain lions were the top predator in the U.S. Without their presence the populations of elk, deer, and other large grazing animals can grow unchecked altering the ecosystem’s structure.
Jaguars are a top predator in habitats close to running water the includes swamps, mangroves, river valleys, tropical and mixed conifer forests. The jaguar’s presence helps to control the populations of other species in the ecosystem. By preventing overpopulation by a species, the jaguar helps to keep the food chain balanced for a healthy environment.
4. Kangaroo Rats
Kangaroo rats prefer desert habitats where they thrive even with little water. These small animals are an integral part of the ecosystem. They encourage and control plant life by feeding on the vegetation and dispersing the seeds in their burrows. Kangaroo rats are also a food source for several predators that include snakes, coyotes, along with barn and burrowing owls that also live in the desert habitat.
The Arctic ecosystems are dependent on the caribou, along with their reindeer cousins. The animals are not only a food source for indigenous peoples in the area but also predators like wolves and bears. The herd animals ensure the ecosystem’s plant structure remains intact by helping to improve soil quality and circulate nutrients that include the seeds necessary for plant regrowth.
6. Snowshoe Hares
Making their homes in northern forests, the snowshoe hare is an important part of their habitat’s ecosystem. The hares are a vital part of the food chain since they are prey for many of the predators that also make their homes in the habitat. Snowshoe hares help keep the predators’ populations steady and encourage new births. As herbivores, they also help to keep plant growth under control.
7. Grizzly Bears
Forest ecosystems depend on grizzly bears. The large animals help regulate populations of prey animals and prevent overgrazing. The bears also distribute seeds and nutrients through their varied diet. The salmon carcasses they leave behind is an important source of nitrogen for the soil that they help distribute as they move around the area.
8. Gray Wolves
Gray wolves can thrive in a variety of ecosystems that include mountains, forests, deserts, grasslands, and tundra. The predators prey on herd animals like elk and deer that can overgraze an ecosystem if their populations are left unchecked. The carcasses of their prey not only redistribute nutrients back into the soil but also provide food for scavengers and other animals.
Beavers are an integral part of a wetland’s ecosystem. The dams the beavers build help to establish and maintain a biodiverse habitat, which is essential for other animals. Their dams ensure that the rivers and streams contain water year-round providing a home for fish that are an important food source for other animals in the habitat.
10. Prairie Dogs
The North American grasslands are home to prairie dogs. The keystone species is more than prey for nearby predators that include hawks, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, badgers, and golden eagles. Their holes and tunnels help aerate the soil allowing seeds to easily germinate. Prairie dog holes also provide shelter for other burrowing animals.
Sharks are apex predators. With almost no natural enemies, sharks keep their ocean ecosystem balanced by maintaining prey populations. The sharks remove sick and weak creatures from the population to help ensure healthy breeding. By helping to keep the populations balanced sharks promote species diversity and healthier oceans.
Tidal pools, rocky shores, coral reefs, seagrass meadows, kelp forests, and the seafloor down to 20,000ft are home to starfish. You’ll find a wide variety of starfish species in coastal habitats. They are considered a keystone species due to their prey. They prey on animals that do not have natural predators in the ecosystem. The removal of starfish allows these organisms to thrive, forcing out other species necessary for the ecosystem’s structure.
The small, quick flying birds have a wide habitat across North America, often due to their migratory patterns. Hummingbirds are crucial for pollination which allows new plant growth and a food source for other animals. Considered mutualists since they work together with the plants. The hummingbird drinks nectar from the flower, and in return, spread the pollen from flower to flower.
14. Fig Tree
While not native to North America, the warm climate trees do grow in California and some southern states. The fruit-bearing trees are considered a keystone species that helps preserve and balance the ecosystem. The fruit is a food source for many animals. Their roots also contribute to the river and stream bank stability preventing erosion and providing homes for birds and animals.
15. Saguaro Cactus
Recognizable by their “arms”, the saguaro cactus is the cornerstone of their habit. Birds build nests inside the plant’s pulpy flesh or with sticks piled in the crooks of its arms. The fruit, flowers, and flesh of the cactus are a food, water, and nectar source for bats, birds, insects, reptiles, and mammals.
16. American Alligators
American alligators are found in swamps and other subtropical marshy ecosystems. Considered an apex predator at full-size, the adult American alligator has no natural predators and keeps other animal populations from overwhelming the fragile ecosystem. Young alligators are also prey for turtles, snakes, wading birds, mammals, and larger adult alligators.
17. Honey Bees
Honey Bees are a vital part of the ecosystem. The small insects support tree, flower, and plant growth through pollination. The mutualists spread pollen from one plant to another as they hover above the flowers. These plants provide food and shelter for the other animals that exist in the habitat. Honeybees can be found across North America.
18. Pacific Salmon
Freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems are sustainable with the presence of Pacific salmon. They provide essential nutrients when their lifecycle is completed. The fish are also an important seasonal food source for bears, birds, and other animals.
19. Snow Geese
The tundra ecosystem is dependent on snow geese. They also benefit habitats during their southern migration. The birds feed on agricultural waste, along with grass and other plants. BY keeping the vegetation controlled, it provides an environment other species can thrive in. The birds are also prey to the wolf and arctic fox.
20. Spruce Budworm
Canada’s forests depend on the spruce budworm. The herbivore helps to ensure a healthy forest. The larvae eat male flowers and cones from the spruce trees. The budworm is also an important food source for other insects and birds. The herbivore helps to ensure a healthy forest with diverse plant and animal life.
Woodpeckers live in forested areas throughout North America. The birds are a cornerstone of the woodland ecosystem. They build their nests inside trees that are often abandoned after the breeding season. It gives other animals like wood ducks and the Northern Saw-Whet owl.
22. Ivory Bush Coral
The stony coral lives in deep and shallow reefs, and it is a vital part of its ecosystem. Ivory tree coral erects structures that become homes of other species. Both invertebrates and fish make their homes in the coral. The coral also helps to protect the coastline from wave erosion.
23. Sugar Maples
Found primarily in the eastern U.S., the Sugar Maple provides both food and shelter for a variety of birds and animals. Woodpeckers and other birds nest in the tree’s cavities. Moose, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hares, porcupine, and squirrels eat the tree’s flowers, fruit, bark, and twigs.
24. Red Mangroves
Red Mangroves grow at the water’s edge and provide both shelter and protection to their wetland ecosystem. The tree’s roots sunk into the water provide a home and nursery for crustaceans and fish. The trees also act as a buffer to prevent erosion and minimize floodwaters from storms.
Tropical reef ecosystems are dependent on the parrotfish. The fish help to maintain the coral’s health by eating the macro-algae that grow on it. If the algae are left to grow unchecked, the reef would become unhealthy and stop growing.
Part of the southern ocean ecosystem, krill are essential for the survival of many marine predators. Seals, whales, penguins, and other fish depend on the krill population as a primary food source.
27. Gopher Tortoise
Florida and other southern U.S. states are part of the gopher tortoise’s habitat. The dry-land tortoise encourages plant growth by spreading the seeds in its droppings. The burrows the animal digs also provide shelter for other animals that range from owls and frogs to the endangered indigo snake.
Bats are found throughout North America, even in densely populated areas. As a keystone species, bats support the health of the ecosystem and biodiversity. Along with dispersing seeds and pollinating plants, bats also help keep insect and arthropod populations under control.