The Real Monster in the Woods
Humans are the scariest thing in nature
Halloween is creeping up on us, making this the perfect time to think about what scares you: Is it spiders? Heights? Perhaps this election?
In most cases, steering clear of potentially venomous critters or deadly falls is a pretty good survival mechanism. But when you react to fear, it’s not just your own hide you’re saving. Your avoidance of certain animals or places has an impact on the ecosystem, whether it’s the ability of spiders to continue trapping and consuming their insect prey or minimizing high elevation habitat erosion. (Hopefully your fear of this election will lead you to vote, which will certainly have an impact on the world.)
Fear shapes nature. The fear of being eaten by large carnivores, for example, helps keep smaller carnivores like badgers, foxes and raccoons from wreaking havoc on their food sources, affecting the balance, structure and function of their ecosystem.
But large carnivore populations have seen truly terrifying losses in recent years. An analysis of 31 carnivore species around the world found that 75 percent are declining, with nearly 55 percent occupying less than half of their former ranges. As these species disappear, so do the benefits they provide, such as habitat restoration, disease control and the fear they instill in other creatures.
As wolves, bears and other large carnivores have disappeared from ecosystems, scientists have wondered if humans could step into their role in the “landscape of fear.” A new study from Western University tested the theory of whether humans could substitute as the monster-hiding-in-the-bushes for smaller carnivores. After all, we have inflicted the worst slasher movie imaginable on wildlife, with our actions driving plants and animals extinct at 1,000 times the natural background rate.
It turns out our scare tactics are much, much worse.
Not only are smaller carnivores killed by human hunters at a rate more than four times greater than by nonhuman carnivores, but the fear we strike in their hearts goes much deeper.
Badgers typically respond to fear by delaying and spending less time foraging, becoming more vigilant and reducing the number of visits to a particular food source. When researchers played a spooky soundtrack of humans talking, most of the badgers didn’t feed at all and the brave few who ventured out spent significantly less time feeding than they did with the sounds of bears, wolves and dogs. The effects of this paralyzing terror may be as great, if not greater, than the effects of directly killing small carnivores, which in turn could affect every plant and animal lower than them on the food chain. As one of the researchers noted, “Humans may be distorting ecosystem processes even more than previously imagined.”
In other words, we can no more replace large carnivores in the natural landscape of fear than you could replace your phlebotomist with Dracula.
Unfortunately, the human horde is already well on its way to taking over the planet. At least 83 percent of the Earth’s land surface is directly affected by the presence of human population, agriculture, roads and energy infrastructure.
So, how do we stop our monstrous effect on wildlife? We need to reduce our agriculture and energy footprints and save our remaining natural areas. It also means tackling human population growth through universal access to family planning and contraception, education and equality. We need to stop crowding out wildlife, so wild animals have space to thrive without the constant fear of a human encounter and we aren’t left haunted by animals whose extinction could have been prevented.
Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.