In the great food chain of life, some predators are more equal than others. While small birds prey on insects, they may in turn be fodder for snakes, which may themselves be hunted by hawks. A predator at the top of its food chain, not preyed upon by another predator, is called an apex predator. Examples include great white sharks, tigers, and humans.

A predator achieves apex predator status when others in its habitat no longer consider it prey, or only attack in the most extreme circumstances. For instance, killer whales sometimes attack great white sharks, but both remain apex predators because such an event is extremely rare. But the apex predator classification is not absolute. Given the chance, some apex predators, such as the tiger, will prey on humans, while tigers, in turn, may certainly be hunted by humans.

Apex predators may also find themselves demoted to lesser status in unfamiliar surroundings. Being highly attuned to their environment, apex predators may easily become prey to species outside of their normal ecosystem. A common example is the domestic housecat, an apex predator domestically, but a prey species to coyotes in the wild.

Apex predators are often “keystone species,” with a disproportionately large effect on their environment relative to their abundance. Introduction or removal of such an apex predator into an ecosystem can have drastic effects on that system’s equilibrium.

Humans might be considered the ultimate apex predator, although we remain a prey species in certain wilder regions of the world.

BrevityQuest 2007

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