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Every ecosystem has its food chain. It’s just part of nature. Those at the bottom of the food chain are preyed on by many animals, and as we move upwards, the number of predators for each species lessens. Right at the very top of the food chain, we find the apex predators. These are skilled hunters with traits designed to predate, and there’s nothing that can match them.
Apex predators around the world are some of the most dangerous yet fascinating creatures, and in this article, we’ll share a little more about them with you.
What is an Apex Predator?
You might have heard people calling an apex predator a top predator, an alpha, or even a top carnivore. But whatever name they go by, they’re the most feared and dangerous of all animal species on the planet.
Residing at the top of the food chain, there is nothing that dares to attack or eat these animals, but they are masters of hunting and are often not picky eaters.
While these mighty and majestic animals are equipped to attack, it’s rare they attack humans intentionally. There are, of course, reports of unprovoked attacks but usually, it’s a case of mistaken identity or humans encroaching on these animals’ territory.
Apex predators have characteristics like excellent senses, including hearing and smell, sharp claws, and/or teeth, fast movement, and the ability to remain stealthy, among other things.
What are Trophic Levels?
Trophic levels are the different levels within a food chain. The lowest level, level 1 is the species at the bottom of the food chain, for example, a type of plant. Levels after this will prey on lower levels until we reach the top, where we find the apex predator.
The levels can be described as follows:
Level 1 – producers like plants or algae
Level 2 – primary consumers/herbivores like rabbits or deer
Level 3 – omnivores and carnivores/secondary consumers such as snakes
Level 4 – tertiary consumers/carnivores that prey on other carnivores such as the eagle
Level 5 – the apex predator
Producers at the bottom of the trophic levels create their own energy using photosynthesis and in turn are the basis of energy for the entire food chain.
What Role do Apex Predators Play in Ecosystems?
Knowing how aggressive and deadly apex predators can be, it would be easy to assume that wiping them out of the ecosystem might be a smart idea. However, it’s anything but. Just like every other creature, apex predators play an important role in the local ecosystem.
Keeping Lesser Predators Numbers in Check
In any ecosystem, the apex predators certainly aren’t the only predators. Slightly lower down in the food chain, we have the mesopredators which include things like foxes and small wild cats. However, without apex predators, the numbers of these species would rise to concerning levels which would throw out the balance of the ecosystem.
This is known as mesopredator release and would mean that these animals would overhunt prey species, messing up the balance.
Help Against Climate Change
It might seem absurd to suggest that apex predators are important in the fight against climate change, but it’s true.
Studies have shown that there is greater biodiversity with the presence of an apex predator. The research showed that when exposed to heatwaves, organisms within a marine setting, such as algae diminished when there was no apex predator. However, when the same experiment was done in the presence of an apex predator, no effect was noted on the algae.
Control Wildlife Populations
Researchers have discovered that having apex predators can come in handy in areas that are populated by humans as these animals control the local wildlife populations. This applies particularly to the control of herbivores.
Why is this important? If the numbers of these herbivores were allowed to vastly grow, they would consume far too much of the local plant life. Not only does this upset the biodiversity of the area, but it also results in things like habitat loss for animals and of course, limited food resources for humans.
The term trophic cascade refers to the removal of apex predators which has a knock on effect to the rest of the food chain. Each level of the chain is regulated by the one above it, but when this is removed, it affects the numbers of species in the levels below, throwing out the balance of the ecosystem.
Apex Predators in the World
When a lot of people think of apex predators, a few specific animals come to mind. Speaking to my children, their first thoughts were about the mighty carnivorous dinosaurs that roamed the planet millions of years ago. However, the world is full of modern apex predators, so let’s learn some more about them.
1. Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)
Komodo dragons do not have a very large range and are typically only found in the lower Sundra region of Indonesia. Since they’re confined to an island, contact with humans is rare, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been reports of attacks. That said, this distribution does mean that they are endangered and this is largely due to man made threats.
These large lizards can grow up to nine or ten feet (3 meters) in length and may weigh between 200 and 360 lbs (90 and 163 kg). Owing to their size, they aren’t fussy about their prey and will swallow it whole. They’ve even been known to swallow things like small pigs and goats in one gulp!
They’re so effective at hunting because of their strong jaws. They’ll latch onto their prey and wrestle it to the death. What’s more, genome studies have shown that they’re able to alter their metabolism, which allows them to be much faster than one might expect.
While it used to be believed that these animals harbored deadly bacteria in their mouths, it’s since been discovered that they have venom glands that help them when hunting and killing prey.
The Komodo dragon does not have a very good sense of hearing, and its vision is poor compared to other apex predators. However, it’s adept at sensing with its tongue, so it knows when there are passing animals, birds, or small lizards.
2. Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
The great white shark is perhaps one of the most well-known and feared apex predators in the world. Thankfully, humans are able to stay away from it by keeping out of the water which is what will be advised should you visit coastal parts of countries like Australia, particularly in the west where these sharks are abundant. They are, however, found all over the world, particularly in waters with an average temperature between 54 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit (12 and 24 °C).
While they may be the stuff of nightmares, great white sharks are incredibly important to the ecosystem and help to maintain balance.
Descendants of prehistoric creatures, the great white shark is perfectly designed to catch and kill prey. With the ability to turn in the blink of an eye and able to smell a drop of blood up to 3 miles (4.8 km) away, these creatures don’t miss a beat. What’s more, when they catch their prey, those rows of 300 serrated teeth deliver an almost certain fatal bite.
While attacks on humans do happen, they’re not usually intentional. Great whites often mistake humans for prey such as seals, which are one of their main prey. However, they’re opportunistic hunters who aren’t fussy and they’ve even been known to accidentally eat things like chairs, tyres, and one was even found with an entire medieval suit of armor in its stomach!
3. Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Let’s take to the skies for our next predator; the bald eagle which is the largest raptor in North America. With a wing span of up to 8.25 feet (2.5 meters) and weighing as much as 14 lbs (6.4 kg), these are some seriously big birds.
The bald eagle can be found in areas where there is a body of water as fish are one of their main prey. However, they will also feed on small mammals like squirrels and sea otters as well as several species of birds.
Any animal that these birds set their sights on will have trouble getting away. The bald eagle hunts from the sky where it gets a clear view of the area. Once it spots its victim, it’ll swoop down and use its long, sharp talons to grab its meal. They’re fast, and they don’t miss a thing!
Not considered to be under any sort of threat, the bald eagle is widespread across the United States. So much so that it has been the national bird for over 250 years!
4. Tiger (Panthera tigris)
The tiger is the largest species of cat on the planet. But it’s not as cute and playful as your kitten at home. These nocturnal hunters, found in areas of Asia like India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia, are some of the most stealthy and efficient hunters in the world.
Their sense of smell isn’t anything to write home about, but tigers have amazing vision and hearing, which allows them to hunt so effectively. They’re also incredibly strong and can grab the throats of their prey, crushing the windpipe and suffocating them. However, for smaller animals, they may bite the neck to break the spinal cord.
Tigers will hunt a range of animals, including deer, elephants, pigs, goats, and even crocodiles! There’s nothing they’re scared of. While humans may fear tigers, they’re actually very beneficial because they control the presence of herbivores that could damage agricultural crops.
But if we aren’t careful, these striking animals may not be around for much longer. Sadly, there are only around 5000 left in the wild, rendering them critically endangered. While numbers rose in 2020, we still need to put in huge conservation efforts as its mainly human input that’s caused the tiger’s decline. Most notably, these creatures are at risk of collisions on human built roads whose construction also results in habitat loss.
5. Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)
The great white shark may be the most feared predator in the ocean, but the killer whale comes a close second. These may be some of the most beautiful-looking marine mammals but don’t let that appearance fool you; they’re born to kill!
Killer whales, sometimes called orcas, a name given to them by the Spanish to mean assassin, are huge creatures that can weigh up to 10,000 lbs (4,535 kg) and get as long as 32 feet (9.8 meters). Their main diet consists of seals, dolphins, walruses, and fish, but they have been known to hunt some less aggressive shark species.
These whales will hunt in groups and are incredibly intelligent, communicating with one another to choreograph a kill. They’re also very curious and have been known to approach humans without fear to investigate. That said, they’re usually pretty docile around humans, and most attacks have occurred when killer whales are kept in captivity.
Orcas are found all over the world and are often seen in coastal waters. There’s not enough data for the IUCN to determine the conservation status of these animals but we do know things like shipping noise, oil spills, and other human activity is a cause for concern for the killer whale.
6. Jaguar (Panthera onca)
Jaguars are beautiful-looking cats that live in South and Central America as well as some of the Southern United States, like Arizona and New Mexico. While they aren’t the largest species of big cat, they’re the largest in the Americas, and what’s more, they are known to have the most powerful bite of all big cat species.
This bite is what makes them such effective killers, and is said to be strong enough to bite through crocodile hide and even turtle shells! Other animals that these big cats prey on include deer, birds, monkeys, and armadillos. They use a stalk and ambush method of hunting, which they largely do at night.
Sadly, the jaguar is considered critically endangered, and it’s thought that there are as few as 173,000 left in the wild. However, without them, the rainforest ecosystems where they live would be thrown out of balance.
7. Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)
Found in places like Bhutan, Siberia, and Nepal in the Himalayan regions, as well as 60% of the global population in China, the Snow Leopard is one of the apex predators that has perfectly adapted to extreme environments. However, their habitat is waning, and these animals are now considered vulnerable.
Snow leopards catch their prey off guard since they’re able to leap as much as three times their own body length and ambush their victims. The main part of their diet consists of things like yaks, gazelles and antelope, but they’re also known to eat smaller mammals and even birds.
When moving around their extreme habitat, snow leopards have large paws that act almost like snowshoes. Their long tails enable them to balance over what is regularly rocky or uneven terrain.
8. Lion (Panthera leo)
The lion, sometimes called the African lion, can be found in sub-Saharan areas of this giant continent. However, in the past, these big cats were also found in parts of Asia.
Much like tigers, lions will either break the necks of their prey or use suffocation. Primarily hunting at night, there’s usually a single female in each pride that is responsible for bringing dinner home. She’ll act with some of the most impressive stealth you’ve ever seen, waiting patiently for her opportunity to pounce. She’ll hunt everything from baby elephants to antelope, giraffes, warthogs, impalas, and much more.
In parts of Africa, lions have been nicknamed maneaters, and there are rumors of single lions finishing off hundreds of humans. However, humans are not the main prey of lions, and they’re not as aggressive as one might imagine as long as they’re left alone because they’ll do anything to protect their cubs.
Sadly, the number of lions in Africa is dwindling. Although there are some managed areas where populations have not been affected. It’s important that humans invest in lion conservation since without them, it’s been shown that the control of large herbivores would be almost impossible for humans alone.
9. Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)
The saltwater crocodile is the largest reptile on the planet and it looks like something from prehistory. Well, it is since these animals are thought to have been on earth for four and a half million years.
There’s a great degree of fear over these crocs and rightly so because they’re a very aggressive species that won’t think twice about attacking a human. In fact, they do so regularly with around 1000 human fatalities from attacks each year.
Saltwater crocodiles can move surprisingly fast; as fast as 18 mph (29 kmh), in some cases, although this is only in short bursts. But in places like Northern Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, it’s advisable to stay away from the water as they will lie in wait before seemingly coming out of nowhere.
These massive animals measure up to 20 feet (six meters) and weigh 1200 lbs (544 kg). They feed on anything they can overpower, including fish, turtles, snakes, birds, wild boar, and much more. However, while their diet used to consist of estuarine creatures, studies have shown that more terrestrial species are being eaten by these beasts.
They’ll clamp their jaws down onto their prey, lock on, and flail until the prey dies. Salties have the strongest bite force of any animal on the planet which is what allows them to successfully kill their prey every time.
10. Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Polar bears are another of the most aggressive apex predators and can be found in northern regions around the Arctic Circle. They are also the largest species of bear on earth, with some weighing as much as 1500 lbs (680 kg) and reaching up to 10 feet (3 meters) when standing on their hind legs.
While these arctic animals may be strong and intimidating, polar bears are beautiful animals and master hunters. They’re not fussy about what they eat and have even been known to hunt humans. Their main diet, however, are seals, but with melting sea ice, polar bears are spending more time on land and are now being seen to hunt things like reindeer.
With two-inch (5 cm) sharp claws and paws that can knock down prey in one swipe, it’s best to keep away! But that’s if you can; polar bears use camouflage to blend in with their surroundings and are one of the stealthiest apex predators out there.
11. King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)
King cobras are native to the eastern parts of Asia, including China and Malaysia but are also commonly found in the northern parts of India. These are among some of the longest snakes in the world. While many grow to around 12 feet (3.7 meters), it’s not uncommon for some larger specimens to reach 18 feet (5.5 meters).
These snakes can live up to 17 and a half years and mainly feed on other cold-blooded animals, especially other species of snakes.
The king cobra hunts both during the day and at night and has an amazing sense of smell. However, it actually uses its tongue for sensing and will track their prey before getting close enough to bite and deliver their deadly venom. The neurotoxins in the venom are potent enough to kill a human victim in as little as half an hour.
However, while these snakes have something of a reputation for their threatening pose and aggressive nature, they’d rather avoid interactions with humans and will only bite when they feel threatened.
Sadly, king cobras are now threatened due to habitat loss and slayings by humans who are scared of them. However, in India, new laws have been brought in to protect these snakes, and anyone found killing them could face up to six years in prison.
12. Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)
The gray wolf is common in most parts of the northern hemisphere. While it’s very common in the Arctic, there are gray wolves as far south as Mexico and parts of south Asia. This wide distribution shows how adaptable these animals are and how easily they can live in all kinds of habitats.
Gray wolves are sometimes called timber wolves, and there are around 24 subspecies of these wild dogs. They feed on a range of animals depending on whether they are hunting in a pack or not. When they do team up and hunt together, they’re able to take down animals as large as moose, elk, and bison, with a single wolf consuming as much as 20 lbs (9 kg) of meat at every meal!
While wolves may seem scary, they have very little interaction with humans. What’s more, without them, the ecosystem would be messed up because the gray wolf helps to prevent herbivores from overgrazing and helps to redistribute nutrients for other species.
The good news is that, while numbers did decline in the USA in the 1900s, reintroduction of these animals is seeing them thrive. However, in some places, wolf populations are all but extinct, including countries like the UK and Japan, and in some European countries such as Poland, numbers are very low.
13. Cougar (Puma concolor)
The cougar, sometimes called the puma or mountain lion is a species that’s native to North and Central America as well as in parts of South America like Chile and Argentina. These animals have earned themselves a bit of a bad reputation owing to human attacks but these are far less common than the media would have you believe.
Being wildcats, cougars hunt in similar ways to some of the other cat species we have looked at. They’re largely nocturnal and will stalk their prey until they have the chance to pounce when they’ll bite the back of the neck to break the spine and kill their victim.
In the wild, cougars can live up to 20 years, and they can grow up to 260 lbs (118 kg). Their main prey is mammalian species, including deer, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, coyotes, and moose, although they will also hunt birds. They’re very important in controlling the populations of several species of hoofed animals (ungulates.)
14. Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)
It’s believed that the polar bear is actually a distant relative of the brown bear. Knowing what effective hunters they are, it’s no wonder that the brown bear also features as one of the top apex predators in the world.
These bears were found historically in Europe and Asia, although numbers have dropped and it’s thought that there are now only around 200,000 in the wild. As many as 160,000 of these are believed to be in Russia. The brown bear can also be found in North America, including the USA, Alaska and in Canada. Across North America and Europe, it’s been suggested that brown bears are decreasing the kill rate of the wolf.
Brown bears are incredibly strong and will often use their large paws to swipe their prey, quickly killing them with one strike. However, they’re also known to ambush their prey and deliver a fatal bite to the neck. However, unlike a lot of apex predators, these creatures are omnivorous and as well as things like small mammals, including juvenile moose, and fish, they’ll also eat a variety of berries.
15. Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
Most people are familiar with the cartoon portrayal of the Tasmanian devil, lovingly dubbed ‘Taz’. While he may have seemed a little crazy, this isn’t too far removed from the animal that inspired this kids’ character.
Tasmanian devils, as their name suggests, are found on the Australian island of Tasmania and are mid-sized marsupials that are known for their aggression. However, this aggression isn’t something they display all the time, and they’re only seen to fly into a rage, showing their sharp teeth and making intimidating growling sounds when they feel threatened. Usually, they’re not a danger to humans.
The Tasmanian devil is a scavenger and will feed on anything from rabbits to other marsupials like wombats and wallabies.
Much like many apex predators, Tassies are important to the ecosystem. While things seem to be pretty balanced on the island, it’s been suggested that these marsupials should be brought back to mainland Australia to restore the balance here. It has been absent from the mainland for more than 3000 years owing to being hunted by dingoes, but scientists believe that bringing it back will help to control foxes in areas where there are no longer sufficient dingo populations.
16. African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus)
There are a lot of apex predators that can overpower their prey or chase them so quickly that they have no chance of getting away. But the African wild dog does things a little differently. It has incredible stamina and will chase its prey to the point that the victim collapses from exhaustion, allowing the dog to take it easily.
These dogs are native to certain parts of Africa including Tanzania, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, and Namibia. They have a very unique ‘painted’ coloration but what’s really special is the size of the prey they hunt.
Owing to their clever hunting methods, these dogs are able to hunt prey that’s almost twice their own size. Sometimes, kills are so large that there’s far too much meat and the food needs to be cached.
The African wild dog is considered to be an endangered species by the IUCN, and it’s thought that climate change is a risk to them. In recent years, it has been noted that these animals are having to adapt their very way of living owing to rising temperatures. This includes moving their birthing dates by 22 days in the last three decades!
How do Apex Predators Not Overpopulate?
If there’s nothing that hunts apex predators then one might wonder how they don’t simply take over the planet. Why aren’t there huge numbers of lions or wolves and how are some of these seemingly indestructible creatures endangered?
The answer is population control within the species. For example, wolves are known to self-regulate their species as a way of ensuring that resources are not too thinly spread. Studies have shown that self-regulation tends to occur in species where weight exceeds 35 lbs (16 kg), whereas smaller species seem to be controlled by external factors.
While scientists used to think that the number of any given apex predators in any given area was related to the availability of prey, this is now disputed, and self-regulation is seen as the most obvious reason for limited numbers.
Are Humans Apex Predators?
I think that many of us would like to believe that humans are the ultimate apex predators but that simply isn’t the case. In fact, according to one report, humans are actually somewhere in the middle of the food chain and this is based on research on human food consumption in 176 countries.
The reason that humans are not considered top predators is simple; our diet is too diverse. That said, the trophic levels of humans rise where there is more consumption of meat.
However, these findings relate to modern humans because, for the best part of two million years, we were considered to be apex predators. This was because humans, back then, were largely carnivorous. It was only towards the end of the Stone Age, when animal meat became scarcer, that humans began including more plant-based foods in their diet.
Megalodon – The Ultimate Extinct Apex Sea Predator
Even the most deadly apex predators of today would have run in fear had they come face to face with the almighty megalodon. This ancient creature went extinct around 2.6 million years ago, and let’s all be thankful for that!
If you thought the great white shark was the worst thing you could find in the ocean, think again! The megalodon, a type of shark, was the largest fish to have ever existed, with some growing up to 59 feet (18 meters) in length! That’s three times the size of a modern great white!
The name megalodon comes from the huge size of the fish’s teeth. Some teeth have been found that are larger than an adult human hand and far larger than those of its modern day relatives. It’s thought that the trophic levels of the meg were so high that it almost certainly fed on a range of other predators. There’s no doubt that it ruled the ocean.
Megalodons had serrated teeth, and it’s thought that they used these to tear flesh off of their victims. Their giant mouths were also thought to be up to 11 foot (3.4 meters) wide; you could fit two adult humans in that space!
It’s been recently discovered that the meg actually existed alongside the great white at one point in history. The two species would have competed for prey and it’s thought that this could be one of the reasons this enormous carnivorous fish went extinct.