What Happens When a Keystone Species Goes Extinct?

By: William Harris  | 
Ochre sea stars
When ecologist Robert Paine removed Ochre sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus) like these from one area of Mukkaw Bay in Washington, he observed a dramatic decrease in species diversity. Wikimedia Commons

Some of history's most persistent structures are the aqueducts built by ancient Romans to carry water from mountains to heavily populated areas. Many still operate today, more than 2,000 years after they began their service. What makes aqueducts so strong is the cascade of arches holding up the structure.

If you examine one of these arches, you'll see it consists of a series of bricks — what engineers call voussoirs — supported at the center by a keystone. The keystone gives the arch its strength and stability. When it's in position, the arch can stand indefinitely. Remove it, and the whole structure collapses. Now, what does this have to do with the entire ecosystem?


In 1969, a zoologist named Robert T. Paine realized that certain species in an ecosystems function just like the keystone in a Roman arch, and he coined the term keystone species to describe them. Such a species plays an essential role in the structure, functioning or productivity of an ecosystem and, like its bridge counterpart, keeps that particular ecosystem from falling apart. So, what are considered keystone species?

Keystone Plants and Keystone Predators

Keystone species don't earn their distinction because of abundance, but because of influence. They can be carnivores or herbivores, plant or animal, marine or terrestrial. They can tower over you, like an elephant, or fit in the palm of your hand, like a sea star.

It was, in fact, a particular species of sea star that led to Paine's development of the keystone concept. The sea star was Pisaster ochraceus, which lives in rocky intertidal communities in western North America and feeds on mussels. When Paine removed Pisaster from one area of Mukkaw Bay in Washington, he observed a dramatic decrease in species diversity. The mussel population, of course, exploded, but other species saw their numbers decline dramatically.


keystone species
Keystone species
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Of 15 species counted at the beginning of the experiment, only eight remained at the end. In a controlled area from which Pisaster wasn't removed, Paine didn't observe any changes in species diversity. Paine characterized Pisaster as a keystone species, as in "key" to how the ecosystem functions.

Soon ecologists and conservation biologists around the world were on the hunt to identify others. Like Paine, they used removal experiments — taking away a single species, recording the changes that occur and returning organisms to their habitats when the removal experiments concluded — to find them.

Throughout the next three decades, the list of keystone species grew to include a wide variety of organisms, including sea otters, parasitic wasps, elephants, and tiger sharks, as well as bats and bird species that assist with pollination.


Sudden Changes in the Food Chain

The dodo bird is just one example of a species that went extinct due to human interference.

Outside of removal experiments we described previously, natural conditions are driving keystone species close to extinction in certain parts of the world. This has led to significant changes in other interconnected populations.

The sea otter is a perfect example. As a keystone predator in the North Pacific, otters feed on sea urchins, which in turn feed on kelp. When sea otters thrive in their range, the local kelp forest remains thick and healthy. But over the last 30 years, killer whales have begun to include otters in their diets, as the whales' normal prey has declined. This has caused sea otter populations to plummet and sea urchins to increase rapidly. In these areas, kelp is almost nonexistent.


Just as humankind creates problems for the local food web, the ecosystem engineers its own small changes. However, the introduction of new predator species and prey species has a major impact on entire ecosystems. In a worst case scenario, if the sea otter were to go extinct, other species would surely follow, and the ecosystem would be changed forever.

Was the Dodo Bird a Keystone Species?

Another case of a keystone species going extinct may have occurred on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The species was the dodo, a large flightless bird that thrived until Dutch explorers discovered the island in the late 1590s. Then the dodo population began to fall sharply as settlers cut down forests and introduced rats and pigs, which raided the bird's nests for their eggs. In less than 100 years, the dodo was gone, left to languish in history books as a dumb animal unable to adapt.

However, ecologists have hypothesized for decades that the dodo may have been a keystone species and that it had what's called obligate mutualism with another endangered organism — a tree known as the tambalacoque. The last tambalacoque germinated just before 1700, suggesting that the tree's demise is somehow related to the dodo's extinction. The hypothesis suggests that the dodo ate the fruit of the tambalacoque and, through digestive processes, activated the seeds. With no dodos around to carry out this important function, the population of tambalacoque trees dwindled to just a few trees.


Everything is Connected

Many scientists dispute the tambalacoque's connection to the dodo, But even if the bird's extinction is not tied to the tree's, the hypothesis underscores an important point about conservation biology: Connections between organisms are not always obvious. The disappearance of even one species can have far-reaching effects.

For these reasons, ecologists continue to focus on the keystone species concept as a way to preserve the structure and function of a wide range of habitats. Whether they're looking at plant species in the Pacific Northwest, native species in the African Savanna, or invasive species in Yellowstone National Park, the ecological community is trying to find ways for all organisms to exist together.