What comes to mind when you think of apex predators?
Sharks, Lions, Bears…
These animals are known as apex predators because they sit at the top of their food chain.
What is an Apex Predator?
Apex predators are at the top of their food chain because they have no natural predators. This means that they are free to hunt and eat whatever they want.
Apex predators play an important role in keeping ecosystems healthy. They help to control populations of other animals by preying on the sick and weak. This keeps disease from spreading and keeps populations from getting too large.
Apex predators are important for another reason. They are a keystone species. Keystone species are those that have a big impact on their ecosystem, even though they make up a small part of it. Without apex predators, ecosystems would be unbalanced and could collapse.
This is because apex predators help to keep other populations in check. For example, if there are too many deer, they will eat all of the plants. This will cause the deer population to decrease. Then, the population of predators that eat deer will increase. This keeps the ecosystem in balance.
List of Apex Predators
The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris bengalensis) is sometimes known as the Royal Bengal tiger and is a subspecies of tiger. The Bengal tiger is the second largest and the most common tiger subspecies.
Bengal tigers hunt medium-sized and large-sized animals, such as wild boar, sambar, barasingha, chital, nilgai, gaur and water buffalo. Bengal tigers sometimes prey on smaller animals like hares, monkeys or peacocks and carrion (the carcass of a dead animals). Bengal tigers have also been known to prey on young Asian Elephants and rhino calves in rare cases.
Bengal tigers kill their prey by overpowering their victims and severing the spinal cord, or applying a suffocating bite of the throat for large prey. The Bengal tiger can consume up to about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of meat at a time and then can survive up to three weeks without food.
The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), also known as the American harpy eagle or Brazilian harpy eagle, is a neotropical species of eagle, distributed throughout Central to South America.
The harpy eagle is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with the population declining. The main reason for the decline in these birds is deforestation, which has meant it is nearly extirpated from much of Central America. They are also threatened by international trade, and by farmers who may shoot these birds as they perceive the eagles as livestock predators.
The harpy eagle is extremely strong, and its talons allow it to take prey equal to its own body weight. Males usually take relatively smaller prey, with a typical range of 0.5 to 2.5 kg (1.1 to 5.5 lb) or about half their own weight, while females take larger prey, around 2.7 kg (6.0 lb).
Harpy eagles are carnivores at the top of the food chain, with their main prey being tree-dwelling mammals found in the top canopy where they reside, such as sloths and monkeys. The most common species of monkeys taken by harpy eagles are capuchin monkeys, saki monkeys, howler monkeys, titi monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and spider monkeys.
Other prey taken by harpy eagles include land mammals like porcupines, squirrels, opossums, anteaters and armadillos, and reptiles such as iguanas, tegus, and snakes. They may also prey on bird species such as macaws and parrots.
The leopard (Panthera pardus) is one of the five extant species in the genus Panthera, a member of the cat family, Felidae. Other members of the genus are the lion, the jaguar, the snow leopard and the tiger.
Leopards are characterized by their striking fur of dark spots grouped in rosettes, that allow them to camouflage against their habitat.
As apex predators, leopards are carnivores and favor prey that is medium in size, with a body mass ranging from 10 to 40 kg (22 to 88 lb). They have been recorded to eat over 100 species of animal, but the most common are ungulates, including small antelopes, gazelles, deer, pigs, primates and domestic livestock. However, they are opportunistic carnivores and will also eat birds, reptiles, rodents, arthropods, and carrion when available.
Leopards will scavenge food off cheetahs, solitary hyenas and other small carnivores, too, but will also eat much smaller prey to avoid intense competition for food from other large carnivores like tigers and hyenas, with which they share parts of their natural range.
Moray eels, comprising the family Muraenidae, are a family of eels whose members are found worldwide. There are approximately 200 species in 15 genera which are almost exclusively marine, but several species are regularly seen in brackish water, and a few are found in freshwater.
Moray eels grow to a length of about 1.5 metres, and live in coral reefs and rocky areas, at a depth of about 200m. They feed primarily on smaller fish, crabs, and octopuses.
A relatively small number of species, for example the snowflake moray and zebra moray, primarily feed on crustaceans and other hard-shelled animals, and they have blunt, molar-like teeth suitable for crushing.
Moray eels have small eyes and therefore rely mostly on their highly developed sense of smell, lying in wait to ambush prey. Sometimes, giant moray eels are recruited by roving coral groupers to help them hunt. The invitation to hunt is initiated by head-shaking.
The Wolverine (Gulo gulo) is the largest and fiercest member of the weasel family. The wolverine animal is native to northern regions of North America, Europe and Asia. This land dwelling mammal is known by many other names including the Skunk Bear, Devil Bear, Carcajou (by the French-Canadians) and Glutten (by Europeans). The animal is so powerful that if it were the size of a bear, it would be the strongest animal on earth!
There are two distinct subspecies of the wolverine animal: the American and the Eurasian. Despite their geographical differences, both subspecies are similar in appearance and behavior. The scientific name of this animal comes from the Latin gula, meaning gullet or throat, perhaps due to its voracious appetite.
The wolverine is an apex predator and therefore they have no natural predators, though they do come into conflict with (and may be killed by) other large predators over territory and food. Wolves, black bears, brown bears, cougars, and golden eagles are capable of killing wolverines, particularly young and inexperienced individuals. Humans are their biggest threat, and in the future, climate change could affect its habitat and result in habitat loss.
The wolverine is an omnivore and can change its diet based on season and location. They eat bird eggs, berries and any animal they can kill. In the summer, berries and plants are their main food, but in the winter they are more likely to eat rabbits and rodents. If live prey is unavailable, they will feed up on carrion.
The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is a lizard species that is found on the islands (particularly the Komodo Island) in central Indonesia. The komodo dragon is a member of the monitor lizard family and is the largest living species of lizard. Because of their size and because there are no other carnivorous animals, these apex predators dominate the ecosystem in which they live.
Komodo Dragons are carnivores and mainly feed up on carrion. They also hunt and ambush prey such as invertebrates, mammals and birds. To catch prey that is out of reach, komodo dragons are able to stand on their hind legs and use their tails as support. They have also been known to use their tails to knock down large deer and pigs. Because of their slow metabolism, large dragons can survive on as few as 12 meals a year.
Since the early 1950’s, the lion population in Africa has been reduced by half. Today fewer than 21,000 lions remain in all of Africa.
Lions hunt by ambush. African lions main prey includes medium to large-sized mammals such as antelope, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, warthog and deer, however, they will also scavenge for food. Lions can survive for long periods without water, obtaining moisture from prey and plants.
One of the few animals that will attack lions are hyenas, which will kill an injured lion, or if food is scarce, will occasionally attack a healthy one. Lions and hyenas have also been known to kill each other in fights over prey.
The Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) has a distribution range including: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru and Venezuela.
The Black Caiman is found in various freshwater habitats such as slow-moving rivers, streams, lakes, flooded savannas and wetlands. The Black Caimans general appearance is similar to the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). As their common name suggests, Black Caimans have a dark coloration.
The Black Caimans eat fish, including piranha fish and catfish and other animals, including birds, turtles and land-dwelling animals like the capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris) and deer when they come to the waters edge to drink. Larger specimens can take tapirs and anacondas.
Caribbean Reef Shark
The Caribbean Reef Shark is a requiem shark found in the tropical western Atlantic and the Caribbean, from Florida and the Bahamas through to Brazil. In the Atlantic, they are rarely found north of the Florida Keys. The Caribbean Reef Shark is one of the largest apex predators in these areas.
Apex predators as adults, are not normally preyed upon in the wild in significant parts of their range by creatures not of their own species. Caribbean Reef sharks typically are seen cruising the edge of reefs, over deep water.
The Caribbean Reef shark feeds on bony fishes and probably large, motile marine invertebrates (reef fish, rays and large crabs) using its acute senses of smell, sight, touch, hearing and electric vibration using its ‘Ampullae of Lorenzini’, small pores under the skin that form a sensory network. This shark and others, also uses a lateral canal system in the body to detect water vibration. Prey is grasped at the mouth corner by a sudden lateral (sideways) snap of the jaws.
The Jaguar (Panthera onca), is a New World mammal of the ‘Felidae family’. It is one of four ‘big cats’ in the ‘Panthera’ genus, along with the tiger, lion and leopard of the Old World. The jaguar is the third largest feline after the tiger and the lion. The jaguar is the largest and most powerful feline in the Western Hemisphere.
Jaguars are carnivores (meat-eaters). Jaguars will eat a variety of animals including birds, eggs and mammals including capybaras, peccaries, tapirs, turtles and alligators. Jaguars often bury their prey after killing it, so that they can eat it later. The jaguar is often described as nocturnal, but is more specifically crepuscular (peak activity around dawn and dusk).
The jaguar is a largely solitary, stalk-and-ambush predator and is opportunistic in prey selection. It is also an apex predator (predators that, as adults, are not normally preyed upon in the wild in significant parts of their range by creatures not of their own species) and a keystone predator, playing an important role in stabilizing ecosystems and regulating the populations of prey species.
The jaguar has developed an exceptionally powerful bite, even compared to the other big cats. This allows it to pierce the shells of armoured reptiles and to employ an unusual killing method. The jaguar bites directly through the skull of prey between the ears to deliver a fatal blow to the brain.
It has been reported that an individual jaguar can drag a 360 kilograms (800 pounds) bull 8 metres (25 feet) long in its jaws and crush the heaviest bones. The jaguar hunts wild animals weighing up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds) in dense jungle and its short and sturdy physique is therefore an adaptation to its prey and environment.
The Polar Bear is found in the coastal areas throughout the Arctic. Polar Bears are semi-aquatic mammals that live on the fringe of vast ice fields that surround the North Pole. The Polar Bear is the world’s largest carnivore species found on land. Although it is closely related to the brown bear, it has evolved to occupy a narrow ecological niche, with many body characteristics adapted for cold temperatures, for moving across snow, ice and open water and for hunting seals which make up most of its diet.
Although Polar Bears are mostly carnivores and are dependant upon the fat of marine mammals for much of its energy, the Polar Bear is a highly adaptable opportunistic
omnivore and in times of need, will eat berries, kelp and rubbish.
Growing Polar Bears eat the meat of marine animals while adults eat mainly Seal blubber.
The orca (Orcinus orca), also known as the killer whale, also less commonly known as ‘Blackfish’ or ‘Seawolf’, is a member of the infraorder Cetacea and is the largest member of the dolphin family (Delphinidae). It has a black and white patterned body and has been made famous by films such as Free Willy and Blackfish. These animals can be found all over the world and are only absent from the Baltic and Black seas, and some areas of the Arctic Ocean.
Killer whales are carnivores, but exactly what they eat is determined by where they reside and what type of orca they are. Resident killer whales off the coast of British Columbia have a food source of fish, predominantly salmon, while transient whales in the same area will eat marine mammals and squid.
Orcas also munch on cephalopods, seabirds and sea turtles, and have been known to eat dolphins, young humpback whales, blue whales, sperm whales, dugongs, seals and Australian sea lions. They eat around 30 different species of fish, which can include sharks and rays, too.
Orcas have no natural predators and often hunt in groups like wolf packs.
The King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the largest venomous snake in the world. The King Cobra snake is also perhaps the most dangerous snake in the world where humans are concerned. Under conditions of high prey availability they can reach a length of 18.5 feet. Several people die from the bite of the King Cobra each year. A King Cobra can even kill an elephant.
A Group of King Cobras is called a ‘Quiver’. Despite the King Cobras fearsome reputation, it is generally a shy and reclusive animal, avoiding confrontation with people as much as possible. There are many smaller venomous snakes within this species range that are responsible for a far greater number of fatal snake bites.
The King Cobra snakes diet is mainly composed of other snakes (ophiophagy – a specialized form of feeding or alimentary behaviour of animals which hunt and eat snakes).
The King Cobra snake prefers non-venomous snakes, however, it will also eat other venomous snakes including kraits and Indian Cobras. Cannibalism is not rare.
When food is scarce, King Cobras will also feed on other small vertebrates such as lizards. Like all snakes, they swallow the prey whole, head first. The top and bottom jaws are attached to each other with stretchy ligaments, which let the snake swallow animals wider that itself. Snakes cannot chew their prey. Food is digested by very strong acids in the snakes stomach. After a large meal the snake may live for many months without another meal due to a very slow metabolic rate. King Cobras are able to hunt at all times of day, although it is rarely seen at night, leading some to debate whether it is a diurnal species.
Apex Predator Conservation
Apex predators are important for the health of ecosystems, but they are in trouble.
Their populations are declining all over the world. This is because humans are hunting them for their fur, meat, and body parts. Hunters also kill apex predators because they see them as a threat to livestock or humans. This is a problem because it means that there are fewer apex predators to do their job.
There are things that we can do to help apex predators. We can support laws that protect them. We can also educate people about the importance of apex predators and how they help to keep our world healthy.
We can all play a part in saving apex predators.