What, exactly, is the best predator? The deadliest? Or the most helpful?
What is the deadliest animal in America? Sharks? They kill about 1 person a year. Bears? About the same. Alligators? The same. Rattlesnakes? About one person every four years, and other snakes kill much less. Dogs? Getting warmer, about 30 people a year die in the U.S. from dogs.
But don’t forget, there are many ways to die. Not all animals are predators, and not all kill their victims the same way; snakes kill people, but not from trauma, and not to eat them. Like the snake, the black widow spider kills by venom, and about 7 people a year die in that way. Now think beyond trauma and poison. A hint: allergic reactions.
About 60 people die each year from insects: bees, wasps, hornets, and occasionally, our beloved fire ants. But that’s still not the most.
The deadliest animal in the United States? Over 100 people die each year from deer, in over 1M collisions with motor vehicles. In addition to the mortality, deer are expensive. At over $3,000 in damage per vehicle collision, deer cost over $3B in damage and injury, and another billion or so in agricultural damage.
From the picture, you might have imagined that wolves are the deadliest. Wolves are actually quite shy, and avoid humans. They kill fewer people than snakes.
And there simply aren’t that many wolves in the lower 48 states. In the 19th century, the contiguous United States might have supported a half-million wolves. Today? A little over 5,000 remain, perhaps 1% of their previous numbers.
Which, we will see, is why deer are so deadly.
Wolves previously hunted all manner of animals, but deer were among their favorite prey. Wolves and other large predators (bear, wildcats, cougar, coyotes) kept deer populations under control, at levels that were within the healthy limits of the deer’s food supply.
Over 100 years ago, however, humans began hunting wolves and other predators, partly out of personal safety concerns, but also to provide more deer for people to hunt. And 100 years ago, dear were an important part of the American diets.
Far fewer people hunt today, and almost none of them rely on deer as a significant source of food. So deer face fewer predators, and their numbers have exploded. That’s why they are now killing us, they’re everywhere.
If biological success is surviving and reproducing, it is always an illusory thing, because it is always temporary. Populations may briefly expand but either predators will expand along with them, or they will outstrip their food supply.
That is what happened with deer. Today, in forests were there are few natural predators, and few human hunters, deer strip the forests not only of grasses and shrubs, but of all seedlings. Imagine a city with only older adults around; it would be quieter, more peaceful, probably more ‘civilized’. Those niceties, however, would be temporary. Without children, the city is doomed.
As is the forest. Stripped of brush, the forest is beautiful to stroll through, but it is equally doomed. When the old trees die, there will be nothing to replace them. The deer will continue to kill seedlings as fast as they appear.
And the deer won’t be doing all that well, either. Wolves and other carnivores target the young, the old, and particularly the sick, which includes the starving. With no predators, however, all deer starve.
And the forests die. It is worse than that, of course; woodlands are critical to to the larger ecosystem, including to wetlands, so they even affect the oceans. The results are extensive, and not always obvious to the casual observer. For instance, in the northwest deer strip the streambanks of cottonwoods. This leads to erosion, lose of topsoil and plants, and destruction of habitat for living things from microbes through the entire food chain.
The Good Predator
What is the best way to manage deer? Even PETA agrees that predators are necessary. PETA strangely objects, however, to human predators, arguing that we only harvest trophies. The hunters I know butcher deer meat and eat it, but even if not, the abandoned carcasses will still attract and feed the same large predators that would hunt and eat them otherwise. The difference is that most hunted deer will die more quickly and less painfully from a bullet, and the predators will avoid the dangers of the chase.
So I’m not sure PETA makes much sense.
The Perfect Predator
This brings up a question, one that I has implications in organic behavior. What would be the perfect predator? Since we have previously questioned the possibility of a perfect ideal, the the ‘perfect’ predator would the optimal predator. Which of the following would that be? Continue reading below…
1) A predator that harms its prey, and diminishes its population.
2) A predator that has no impact on its prey, nor any impact on population numbers.
3) A predator that helps its prey, and expands its numbers.
Organic behaviorists have largely focused on conflict; Darwin founded the field of organic evolution with the concept of the struggle for existence, and survival of the fittest. But when the question is put in the preceding format, a different idea of the perfect predator is obvious.
Death is everywhere, it is an inescapable part of life, the yang to the yin of prosperity. Given that unfortunate reality, we must conclude that the ideal predator is one that helps its prey.
And although that is not the general perception, the fact is that all predators help their prey.
Wolves picture courtesy of Free HD Images.