Jun 12, 2019

Keystone Species of India

All are equal but some are more equal than others.

— George Orwell —

In a day when liberalism and capitalism have gained tremendous movement and is charging ahead like a juggernaut steam rolling anyone who stands in his path.

With the promotion of individualism over collectivism and the establishment of ‘I’ as the single dominant force.

I tend to question, is each individual truly special and unique or is it a marketing gimmick to sell more products?

Is it really true, that all you need is to believe in yourself no matter what anyone says, even your loved ones, to achieve something or are we doomed to a life of insignificance and inconsequence when compared to the vastness of the cosmos?

I am sorry I digress.

Enough talk about our existentialism issues, lets discuss something else.

A concept which challenges the notion that all are equal (It is a human concept after all).

What is a Keystone Species?

A species which has a large and disproportionate impact on its ecosystem relative to its abundance is called a keystone species.

The term was first coined by zoologist Robert Paine in the 1960’s. While studying marine invertebrates in the inter-tidal zone he observed that starfish had a disproportionate impact on their ecosystem. If this animal were taken out of the equation half the other species would vanish, hence making the starfish the keystone species of that ecosystem.

Challenges

Identifying keystone species is a challenging process and laden with difficulty.

The term has been used loosely in ecological literature and identifying keystone species requires thorough knowledge of an ecosystem and the organisms found in it.

Keystone species vary from habitat and ecosystem and a keystone species in one habitat may not be a keystone species in another e.g.  The starfish we talked about above studied by Robert Paine in the intertidal zone is a keystone species in wave-exposed rocky headlands vis-à-vis a wave-sheltered habitat.

The time period to establish a species as a keystone species is a challenge as well. Terrestrial ecosystems responds slower and it may take a long time before the ripple effects of losing a top predator is seen through an ecosystem establishing it as a keystone species.  E.g. establishing the kangaroo rat as a keystone species acting as desert granivores preventing the widespread growth of grass species took ten years. It was successfully established due to the perseverance and interest of the researchers Brown and Heske, who continued their quest even after the funding dried out.

Another important factor is human destruction. As a consequence of the loss of biodiversity the remaining species substitute as keystone species. E.g. the loss of bird species has led fruit bats to become the only pollinators and seed dispersal agents leading to the status of keystone species.

Keystone species in India

Let’s look at some of the lesser known keystone species in India

Fiddler Crabs

The Fiddler crabs are detritivores (meaning they feed on dead particulate organic matter). Essential to the ecosystem.

These crabs do a vital service by eliminating the leaf litter and adding nutrients to the soil. They do so by preventing anaerobic conditions by their feeding and burrowing behaviour earning them the title of keystone species. Without them, the beautiful Sunderbans forest and Royal Bengal tigers would just be another fairy tale.

Cullenia exarillata tree (local name Veipla)

Endemic to the Western Ghats in India this tree supports a plethora of organisms.

Insects, birds and mammals all are attracted to this life giving stationery guardian.

We may choose to ignore trees but lucky for us they don’t stop their life giving service.

Some, like the lion tailed macaque (endemic to Western Ghats) are attracted to the fruits and leaves of Veipla while others like the leopard are attracted because it knows where to find the macaque.

This silent introvert holds the key(stone) to the ecosystem it inhabits. (An article by Dr. Margaret Lowman –

Read the article here

There are many keystone species in India that silently are keeping the ecosystem healthy and providing us with their vital service. So the next time you visit a national park think about the little things and the big impact they have. .

Conclusion

Identifying keystone species is difficult but essential to understand how loss of a certain species affects the ecosystem which in turn can help us to protect and manage the ecosystem more efficiently.

Currently we are only identifying keystone species once they are disappearing due to man-made destruction and hence understanding their impact on the ecosystem.

Great strides are yet to be made in identifying keystone species backed by thorough research.

To save the Tiger we must save the crab, to save the macaque we must save the tree and to save (the) humans we must save the planet.

— Sohel —

Reference: Challenges in the quest for keystone: Identifying keystone species is difficult-but essential to understanding how loss of species will affect ecosystems by Mary E. Power, David Tilman, James A. Estes, Brnee A. Menge, William J. Bond, L. Scott Mills, Gretchen Daily, Juan Carlos Castilla, Jane Lubchenco, and Robert T. Paine

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