Protect and restore keystone species to ensure the health of ecosystems and neighboring human communities.
A keystone species is an animal or plant that serves an irreplaceable ecological or cultural function. Its removal can cause destabilizing trophic cascades in significant parts of an ecosystem, impacting the diversity and size of wildlife populations, the abundance of native vegetation, and the health of waterways. The resulting changes can increase the risk of wildfires and boost the spread of invasive species. Their loss can also impact the material and spiritual well-being of human communities. Many keystone species, including bats, sea otters, and oak trees, are in jeopardy from the effects of industrial agriculture, land degradation, development, hunting, and climate change. Protecting and restoring keystone species in their native habitat is essential to planetary and human well-being.
Learn why keystone species are essential and what threats they face. In a famous experiment in 1963, biologist Robert Paine removed starfish, a top predator, from a rocky shoreline and documented the cascading damage to the marine food web that followed. His work led directly to the keystone species concept, which describes the outsize impact certain species have on their habitat relative to their abundance.
- There are several types of keystone species. Predators, such as lions, affect populations of prey—animals caught and killed for food. Some prey, such as krill in the Southern Ocean, form the base of an entire food web. Ecosystem engineers, such as beavers and elephants, modify and maintain landscapes. Mutualists, such as flowering plants and pollinators, engage in vital reciprocal relationships. Plants, such as the saguaro cactus, provide food and shelter for other species.
- While most research has focused on mammals, ecosystems have keystone plants and aquatic species as well as fungi essential to soil health. Here is a list of keystone species by habitat.
- Cultural keystone species are the plants and animals that play a fundamental role in the diet, materials, and medicine of Indigenous communities, and feature prominently in their ceremonies and stories. Eastern white pine is a keystone species for the Kitcisakik Algonquin community of western Quebec.
- Many keystone species are endangered or threatened. These include jaguars in the Americas, ivory bush coral in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and mosses and liverworts, which are a critical part of European peatlands.
- Many of the threats to keystone species are the same ones adversely affecting other species around the world, including overfishing, overhunting, overgrazing, habitat conversion, industrial agriculture, toxic chemicals, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. See Insect Extinction Nexus, and Mangroves Nexus for examples.
- The loss of a keystone species can cause ripple effects in ecosystems both downward and upward, called trophic cascades. These effects have been observed globally and often result in weakened food webs. Examples include effects on herbivore behavior and forage when leopards and African wild dogs were removed in Mozambique; marine food web destabilization after cod population collapse in Maine; and the decline of coral reef health when sharks are absent.
- Trophic cascades can result in midlevel predators gaining prominence, as coyotes did when wolves were removed. When dingo populations in Australia were reduced, red fox populations increased, impacting smaller mammals.
- Solutions exist. Ranchers are reducing livestock-predator conflicts. Large carnivores are growing in numbers across Europe. Humans and lions are living peacefully in the Kalahari. New technologies are being applied to reduce human-shark conflicts.
Join a support group protecting and restoring keystone species, particularly Indigenous and traditional communities. There are many organizations and agencies working on behalf of keystone species around the world (see Key Players below for more). Find groups that respect and collaborate with traditional custodians, while supporting existing conservation efforts.
- The Cascade Forest Conservancy partnered with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in Washington State to reintroduce beavers into parts of the Cascade Mountains where they had been missing for ninety years.
- Rocky Mountain Wolf Project is one of many regional wolf-specific organizations in the United States.
- Panthera International focuses on the conservation of the world’s forty species of wild cats and the ecosystems they inhabit.
- Rewilding Chile is an example of an organization whose conservation of a keystone species, the Andean Huemul deer, will meet more complex regional conservation goals.
- Living with Lions weaves research, conservation, and education to help people in Sonoma County, California, coexist with mountain lions.
Provide a buffer zone for local conservation efforts at home. The way we engage with our shared spaces, such as our backyards or community parks, can help keystone species. Buffer zones—habitats at the edge of properties that are adjacent to, or act as, wildlife corridors—reduce human-wildlife conflicts (see Wildlife Corridors Nexus).
- Work with neighbors to develop a private-land corridor or buffer zone, such as in Byron Shire. Include safety features like predator-friendly fencing so that animals can safely pass through while humans and domesticated animals can stay safe.
- Join forces with neighbors to get your community certified as pollinator-friendly or as wildlife habitat, as this neighborhood did in North Carolina.
- Encourage neighbors and nearby businesses to stop using rat poison and bait boxes. Effective nontoxic alternatives like Integrated Pest Management focus on the exclusion of rats from buildings, and on food storage and sanitation measures.
- Build partnerships with government and NGOs to connect backyard efforts with green infrastructure, land acquisitions, conservation partnerships, and urban wildlife projects.
Prevent illegal wildlife trade. Illegal wildlife trade is a billion-dollar industry that fuels the poaching of wild mammals, creating cascading negative impacts on surrounding ecosystems, human health, and local economies. Examples of highly trafficked keystone species include elephants, rhinoceros, and pangolins.
- Do not buy endangered and exotic animal products. This can include corals, fur, ivory, leather, and shells.
- Avoid consuming exotic food products including wild meats and shark fin soup.
- Report wildlife crimes to your local wildlife agencies. Apps like Wildlife Witness allow tourists and locals to report wildlife trade by taking photos and sending reports to a global wildlife monitoring nonprofit, TRAFFIC.
- Sign the Stop Wildlife Crime campaign to support stronger poaching enforcement and long-term demand reduction efforts by governments.
- Support NGOs that fight poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking. Lists of organizations can be found here and here.
Support responsible ecotourism. Ecotourism can financially empower local communities to participate in the protection of keystone species by reducing poaching and protecting neighborhoods from wildlife encounters. Not all ecotourism outfits have net benefits for the ecosystem. Here are some examples of certifications to look for.
- Many companies are certified by statewide or regional agencies. Some gold standards include Australia and Costa Rica.
- Conservation organizations like Amazon Conservation’s EcoLodges also offer certification.
- Global Sustainable Tourism Council and Rainforest Alliance are international certification bodies.
Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Landowners
Stop keystone species depredation. Conflicts can arise between keystone species and agricultural operations. Predators might kill livestock, although deaths by predators are often lower than from other factors. The presence of ecosystem engineers and mutualists might conflict with farming or ranching goals. Often, these conflicts can be avoided or mitigated, with the use of regenerative agricultural practices, involvement in collaborative conservation, employment of new technology, and compensation for loss. Examples:
- When a farmer in Nevada stopped depredating beavers while implementing rotational cattle grazing and riparian buffers, his land soon had cleaner and more abundant water.
- The Western Landowners Alliance works across the American West to implement collaborative conservation programs and policies that benefit both wildlife and landowners.
- Winemakers in France are investing in hedgerows at the end of fields to provide habitat for keystone pollinators, which in turn improve crop success. Tools like Bumble-Beehave or the Xerces Society’s guidelines allow farmers to plan pollinator-friendly farm management.
- A farmer in Montana utilized the USDA’s technical and financial assistance to grow trees and shrubs including the keystone elderberry for keystone pollinators. These plantings in turn reduce erosion and compaction and improve soil health on his farm overall.
Improve livestock protection practices. Livestock can be protected from predators by the use of human herders, guard dogs, electric fencing, and scare devices. Much can be learned from pastoralists who have been coexisting with predators for generations. The protection of livestock will vary greatly depending on location, resource availability, and the behavior of local predators. Common protection efforts include:
- Livestock penning at night; motion-detected lighting, and food cache, carcass, and garbage containment.
- Building fences with wild animal movement in mind. Simple fixes like removing unused fencing or raising the height of the bottom cross-beam can meet farmers’ and ranchers’ needs without triggering trophic cascades. See Wildlife Corridors Nexus for more.
- Choose deterrents based on the species. African elephants were successfully deterred from entering spaces with the use of African honey beehives, which the elephants dislike.
Support efforts to protect and rehabilitate keystone species habitat. The removal of invasive species and reintroduction of keystone plants like oaks and willows can support the return of other animals and plants that rely on them, such as this one in the UK involving the reintroduction of beavers. Restored ecosystems provide predators with access to preferred prey, which lessens the pressure on livestock. There are many different ways to rehabilitate habit (see Degraded Land Restoration Nexus). Other options:
- Many landowners can sell or gift their land to a local conservation organization, community trust, or land trust.
- Landowners can partner with conservation groups and governments to advance conservation efforts with fewer impacts on ranch/farm operations, like landowners abutting South African parks did.
- A two-year project in the UK found that brush piles and banks were effective in increasing rabbit activity and promoting the breeding and restoration of rabbit populations.
- A farm and distillery in northern Minnesota got Bee Friendly certification to demonstrate to customers that their products support keystone pollinators.
- Get technical assistance and resources from conservation groups like residents across Sonoma County, California, do with Living with Lions.
Work closely with all stakeholders, especially Indigenous communities, landowners, community members and leaders, government officials, and other agencies. The development and implementation of projects should incorporate local community perspectives and needs.
- The Haida Nation’s stewardship included efforts to restore sea otters and evaluate their restoration’s effect on their region.
- Citizen scientists can contribute to marine scientific knowledge while improving the engagement of communities adjacent to oceans.
- The Human-Wildlife Conflict & Coexistence Specialist Group tracks resources and does research on how conservation groups are engaging locals.
- If the conservation team is not from the community, include local community members in the core team, like in Kenya, where herders manage a conservancy.
Focus on the entire food web. Some conservation efforts focus too narrowly on reintroducing or stabilizing a population of one keystone species without sufficient plans to manage larger effects on the food web.
- Use food webs to guide ecosystem management and conservation efforts to ensure that efforts get the intended results.
- Plan to develop new management stages over time, as the reintroduced species interacts with and changes the behavior of other species within the ecosystem, requiring a shift in management and conservation.
- Rewilding Europe considers interlocking relationships in their projects. For example, they are boosting rabbit populations in Western Iberia by reintroducing wild horses to create mosaic landscapes through grazing.
Support community-based solutions to ensure efficient and effective conservation and reintroduction efforts. Recent research indicates that many hunting and relocation practices and standards that management departments rely on do not meet their own management goals or reflect current science. Wildlife agencies can partner with researchers, local communities, and conservation groups to ascertain best practices.
- In Mumbai, Wildlife Conservation Society—India launched a participatory project with the forestry department that engaged all local stakeholders to gather both scientific and traditional knowledge on coexisting with leopards. The department shifted strategies, and the project resulted in a reduction in attacks.
- Bison were returned to the Southern Carpathians in Romania while supporting the development of a nature-based economy and building educational opportunities for the community.
- A restoration effort in Argentina’s Iberá National Park includes jaguars and macaws, as well as economic support for local communities.
- In Alberta, Canada, and across Africa, compensation regimes have been effective in maintaining wildlife habitat on private lands.
- The Natural Capital Project helps governments and organizations to quantify the economic benefits of habitat protection and restoration.
- Efforts to protect wildlife include the 30 by 30 movement for land and oceans, the Half Earth project, and the Indigenous-led Land Back movement.
Enable Indigenous leadership. Coexistence with wildlife is essential—a worldview long practiced by Indigenous peoples. Indigenous rights and inclusion are key to ensuring effective conservation outcomes and protecting cultural keystone species. This includes expanding formal protected areas, recognizing land ownership, and enabling Indigenous leadership.
- The Ajumawi-Atsuge Nation used support from a coalition to improve the health of oak savannahs through prescribed burns. Oaks are a cultural keystone to many tribes.
- First Nations management of grizzly bears in Canada has led to increased habitat protection, reduced mortality, and growth in research and governance programs.
- Three tribal wildlife stewardship programs—the Maidu Summit Consortium’s beaver restoration project, the Karuk Tribe’s elk management program, and the Yurok Tribe’s condor recovery effort—lead the way in effective outcomes for both people and wildlife.
Implement policies, programs, and technologies that promote coexistence with keystone species. Policies are needed that incentivize coexistence with keystone species on public and private lands. Such policies can bolster the efforts of local institutions, facilitate bottom-up collaborations, and support science-based programs.
- Here is a call for a national predator coexistence program for the U.S.
- NOAA provides community-based technical assistance on restoration projects to support keystone species like coral.
- Marijuana legalization gave California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife a window to help new and legacy growers reduce their impact on ecosystems, particularly streambeds and other waterways.
- In Australia, Indigenous peoples have suggested the use of biocultural indicators to support the use of traditional management of culturally significant species and ecological communities.
- The use of nonlethal technologies such as blimp-mounted cameras for shark monitoring can be deployed along coastlines to reduce human-shark conflicts.
Carefully vet development projects. Development is a primary driver of habitat loss, and new projects in keystone species’ habitat should be avoided if possible.
- Many predators can tolerate low-level development but cannot or prefer not to live within urban systems.
- Avoid subdivision or interruption of continuous habitat.
- Governments can encourage projects to incorporate biomimicry so new buildings serve the needs of both humans and the ecosystem.
- Landscape-scale planning takes a step back to look at overall area development to minimize impact and disruptions to ecosystems by creating more efficient and multiuse spaces.
Defenders of Wildlife (U.S.)
Western Landowners Alliance (U.S.)
Conservation International (U.S.)
Panthera International (U.S.)
Living with Lions (U.S.)
Amazon Conservation (U.S.)
Rewilding Chile (Chile)
Tsavo Cheetah Project (Kenya)
Rewilding Europe (Netherlands)
Pacific Wolf Coalition (U.S.)
Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (U.S.)
Northeast Wolf Coalition and Wolf Conservation Center (U.S.)
Lobos of the Southwest (U.S.)
International Wolf Center (U.S.)
Keystone Species Alliance (U.S.)
“Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth” by Estes et al.
“Andean Pumas Bring National Park in Argentina Back to Life” by Jane J. Lee
“What Is a Trophic Cascade?” by Ripple et. al
“Trophic Cascade,” poem by Camille Dungy
How Wolves Change Rivers (4 mins.)
How Starfish Changed Modern Ecology (3 mins.)
How Whales Change Climate (4 mins.)
Wildlife, Warriors and Women, one of many webinars and presentations offered by the IUCN SSC Human-Wildlife Conflict & Coexistence Specialist Group
The Cougar Conundrum, one of many episodes of The Wild with Chris Morgan podcast, that discusses keystone species
George Monbiot—Rewilding: How Wolves Change a River, on Planet A: Talks on Climate Change podcast
A Journey Back to Traditional Ecological Knowledge with Cristina Eisenberg, on Outside Voices podcast
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