What is the deadliest animal in America? And is the best predator the deadliest, or the most beneficial?
Deadliest Animal in America
What is the deadliest animal in America?
Sharks? They kill about 1 person a year.
Bears? About the same.
Alligators? The same.
Snakes? About 6 people a year.
Dogs? Getting warmer, about 30 people a year die in the U.S. from dogs. That’s still not enough to make dogs the deadliest animal in America.
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, but almost no one in the U.S. dies from black widow envenomations. Now think beyond trauma and poison. A hint: allergic reactions.
About 60 people die in the U.S. each year from insects: bees, wasps, hornets, and occasionally, our beloved fire ants. But that’s still not the answer.
The deadliest animal in America? Over 100 people die each year from deer, in over 1M collisions with motor vehicles. Beyond the deaths, deer are also costly. At over $3,000 in damage per vehicle collision, deer cost over $3B in damage and injury. They are responsible for another billion or so in agricultural damage.
From the picture, you might have imagined that wolves are the deadliest animal in America. 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 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 diet.
Far fewer people hunt today, and almost none of them rely on deer as a significant source of food. So deer face fewer predators, human, wolf, and others. Not surprisingly, their numbers have exploded. That’s why they are now killing us. They’re everywhere. However, this would appear to be quite fortunate for the deer.
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 and contain their numbers, and the numbers will stabilize. The success will be short-lived.
If, however, predators do not expand with the prey population, then they will outstrip their food supply. Which is catastrophic.
That is what happened with deer. Today, in forests where 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 tefmporary. 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 they risk a catastrophic collapse. There are thresholds in biology, mathematical critical points; if a populations drops below that point, the most probable outcome is local extinction.
But before that happens, the forests may die. And worse: 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 up 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 in this case.
The Best Predator
This brings up a question, one that I has implications in organic behavior. What would be the best predator? Since we have previously questioned the possibility of a perfect ideal, the best predator, or even the ‘perfect’ predator would the optimal predator. Which of the following would that be?
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1) Is the best predator one that harms its prey, and diminishes the population?
2) Is the best predator one that has no impact on its prey, nor any impact on population numbers?
3) Is the best predator the one that benefits its prey, and expands its numbers?
Organic behaviorists have traditionally focused on conflict. Darwin founded the field of organic evolution with the concept of competition, the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. A lot of modern biological work continues in that tradition. And biologists struggle to build theoretical models of cooperation among unrelated organisms.1)‘Unrelated organisms’ is an ironic oxymoron; Darwin suggests that all living things are related. So the problem is one of ‘How closely related’? We say ‘unrelated’ because the fuller concept is well, complicated.
But when the question is put in the preceding format, a different idea of the best 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 best predator is one, ironically, that helps its prey. The predator, of course, doesn’t do this consciously; he defends a territory, keeping out other predators, and thereby benefitting his prey. Perhaps, as humans do, a predator preferentially hunts males, which will also benefit the prey.
And although that is not the general perception, and although biologists are not always comfortable with the conclusion, the fact remains: the best predator, the most successful predator, will always be the one that helps its prey.
And regardless of whether our ecological models can explain such results, life is more complicated than our models. Natural selection will reward the predator-prey system which expands. Despite any obstacles, life will eventually solve the problem.
Wolves picture courtesy of Free HD Images.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||‘Unrelated organisms’ is an ironic oxymoron; Darwin suggests that all living things are related. So the problem is one of ‘How closely related’? We say ‘unrelated’ because the fuller concept is well, complicated.|