The largest animals in the ocean could become extinct in the next couple of thousand years. Human activity could have that effect on marine wildlife.
A recent study found that large marine animals are more likely to become extinct than small marine animals. Researchers say that this is unprecedented in the history of life on the planet. It is unusual for the larger species of animals to be vulnerable and at risk. But that it could happen if current trends remain the same.
The Ocean Without Its Largest Animals
What would the oceans look like without some of the biggest animals in them? We don’t know but researchers are alarmed by the possibility.
The study found a pattern in the oceans’ ecosystems that could mean the top predators in the oceans would disappear. Jonathan Payne is a paleobiologist at Stanford University and the leader of the study in question. He says that “The Earth is experiencing something it has never experienced before”. He also said that as far as the science of biology was concerned this was “uncharted territory”.
So it is possible that within this modern era we are going to see a dramatic change in marine life. Scientists are going to have the possibility to observe it and study it.
But Payne and his colleagues say that they would much rather see the change not happen at all. Losing the largest marine animals could have a domino effect on the entire ecology of the ocean. Exactly how the change would affect ocean life altogether is difficult to predict.
Noel Heim is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. He co-authored the study together with Payne. He says that what could change could be anything from the distribution of temperature to the distribution of energy.
Large predators don’t seem to be too important, in the sense that it doesn’t look like they do much. All they seem to do is sit at the top of the food chain and reap the rewards. But their activity has secondary effects that are beneficial to the ecosystem. A blue whale that dives down for food mixes together a lot of water. That affects the temperature of the water. To give another example, clams mix sediments together, changing the composition of sand.
The Scientific Data
The paper that the two researchers wrote was published only this week in the journal Science. The authors of the study looked at 2,497 species of marine life, from vertebrates to mollusks. The study looked at animals that were on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation.
The animals were chosen based on four traits. The most obvious one was size, the length of the animal. Another one was the habitat of the animal, whether it lived on the sea floor or in open water. Yet another one was motility, whether it stayed in just one spot or if it swam around. Finally, another trait was the feeding pattern, whether the animal was a predator of not.
Next the researchers looked at how these four traits correlate with extinction rates for marine life species. The results showed them that large animals that swim around are now at risk for extinction with a greater likelihood than small animals.
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