Supporting the Arch

What is a Keystone Species?

When speaking about the conservation of sea stars and southern resident killer Whales, the term “keystone species” is continually thrown around. How many people actually know what a keystone species is? While this term may appear basic to some, the meaning behind an organism that falls under this particular category has massive implications for our ecosystem.

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Photo: http://www.seattleaquarium.org/exhibit/Orcas-Activity-Center

A keystone itself is defined as the central stone of an arch, and if lost, the arch will collapse. The most intriguing part of this design is that it only takes one stone to destroy the health of an entire structure. Aptly named, the role of a keystone species falls along the same lines. While these animals may not be the most plentiful in a community, their presence is essential for a healthy ecosystem.

So what exactly would happen if a keystone species disappeared? One relevant example would be a lack of sea stars in our local waters. While sea stars are not apex predators, they keep one very important population in check — mussels. A lack of these colorful predators would result in mussel population growth that would block out success among many other species in the rocky intertidal biome. As a result, the community would become far less diverse.
When biologists or conservationists talk about negative impacts on keystone species, it is important to realize that these effects are not limited to that particular type of animal. Some wonder why so much money and effort goes into protecting our orca whales, and in reality there are many reason. But, perhaps the most important reason behind this conservation movement is simply the fact that if our keystone orca whales cease to exist, life in Puget Sound as we know it, and love it, will cease to exist as well. Keystone species are very important in supporting our arch of life, continue protecting them and our arch will forever hold strong.

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