By Education Intern Fernanda Mora
In the grasslands of Africa, a beautiful zebra grazes a couple of feet away from her group. Unbeknownst to her, a hungry lioness watches her from several yards away, waiting for the perfect time to strike. With the zebra blissfully unaware, the lioness knows this is that moment. She sprints towards her prey carried by the powerful muscles of her four limbs. Finally, the lioness is close enough and leaps onto her prey’s back with so much force she unbalances her prey and throws her to the ground. The two struggle for what feels like forever; both with so much on the line, but eventually the lioness wins.
It’s hard not to sympathize with the helpless zebra.
What did this interaction mean for the lioness? How long has it been since her pride or more importantly, her cubs have had their last meal? What risks did she have to take in order to take down this prey?
For now, she and her pride get to escape hunger for a little while longer. Human culture vilifies the predators of our world when in reality, we have more to thank predators for and less to fear than the media has made us believe.
As someone new to Florida and associated with the Conservancy, I have gotten the opportunity to work with some of the animals typically portrayed as villains. Although we do not have lions here in Southwest Florida, we have a plethora of native species we consider predators. Many of which are misrepresented by the media as spiteful and vindictive, like the powerful sharks, alligators and snakes.
Sharks vs. Humans
Sharks have been made into villains many times in movies like in the iconic Jaws, the Meg, and countless others. For every human that is killed by a shark, humans kill approximately 2 million sharks. Due to the misconception that sharks like making meals of humans, they have been hunted down for sport and for vengeance to the point of having their populations threatened and continue to be hunted for their fins.
In truth, only 5 people die yearly from shark attacks and most times shark attacks are accidental.
Surfers and swimmers tend to look like a shark’s favorite meal: a seal. Let’s not forget, when we are out in the ocean, we enter their home, where they hunt, eat, and sleep.
Not only do many predators help control the populations of other species within their habit by sheer volume, they also help maintain their prey population’s health by picking off the frail and potentially diseased individuals.
Sharks do this through their sixth sense of electroreception. They have specialized organs that allow them to perceive the electrical impulses that come off every living thing’s nervous system. Sharks can spot weaker and even sick fish through discrepancies in their electrical impulses. Knowing that they will be easier to catch, sharks will make these sick fish their targets. This can even benefit us by decreasing the possibility of a human contracting a zoonotic disease from a sick animal.
Photo Caption: Volunteering with Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and placing a spaghetti tag on a young Bull Shark to help track its migration.
Not all Snakes are Venomous
Even on land, we commonly enter spaces shared with predators such as snakes. From children’s stories like the Jungle Book to horror films like Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane, snakes have been characterized as cold-blooded relentless killers out to kill humans with one venomous bite.
Here in Southwest Florida, we have about 26 species and only four of them are venomous!
Having a slightly unhealthy fear of snakes before my internship, I have come to appreciate them through continuous care of the 11 snakes that call the Conservancy their home. Along with the care we provide to these animals, I have also learned so much about their natural habitats and behavior tendencies, which the Conservancy passes along like the Burmese Python seen below to educate the public about invasive species and their impact to our natural environment. I have also learned that snakes are more likely to move away from you than rush towards you. They feel vibrations of potential threats coming their way and decide to slither away. Unless, of course, there is no option of escaping.
Even if an adult venomous snake is encountered, it will most likely defend itself with a “dry bite.” Some snakes bite without injecting venom into their attackers with the hope that the bite itself will be deterring enough. We are sharing more and more space with animals and having more encounters. However, it’s important to continue to make these spaces safe for predators as they play an important role in their ecosystems.
At the top of each food chain, you will find an apex predator, an animal that’s only potential predator is humans. An apex predator controls the populations of prey species through consumption and by having large home ranges. These large home ranges influence how other species choose to live, graze, and control how much they expand.
For example, the removal of wolves from Yellowstone National Park caused elk and deer to begin grazing lightly and from more areas, which caused more habitat degradation. Having such large roles in controlling the populations in their area makes them keystone species.
Alligators are Keystone Species
Keystone species, if removed, set off a chain of events, which changes the structure and biodiversity of its habitat drastically, usually not for the best. Without the control of large mammal herbivore populations, the availability of plant matter can be diminished leaving no food for other herbivores, which then leads to their predators lacking food sources as well. The disruption of the entire food chain and the depletion of resources in an area can eventually lead to the destruction of an ecosystem.
As we learn more about these predators and their important roles in our ecosystems and dispel the evil nature we’ve previously casted upon them, we have to make a conscious effort to view predators in a more favorable light. To decrease our sometimes irrational fears, we can make it a point to increase our knowledge about predators. Like how to avoid a snake bite or what to do if you spot an alligator out on a hike.
We must remember that they are more afraid of us than we are of them. Fear can be a very motivating factor and if an animal feels like they are in danger, they will naturally use their strengths to defend themselves. With proper education on how to act if encountered by a predator, we will not only decrease the possibility of human injury, but also create beneficial habits for wildlife and the ecosystem.
My newfound understanding for scary predators has transferred over to the outdoor activities I have been lucky enough to partake in such as kayaking in the Gordon River, swamp walking in the Everglades, shark tagging, and fish trawling. In all these situations, I have found myself in beautiful places that I know have predatory inhabitants. I remind myself that I have to be vigilant and respectful and in return, I am no longer so afraid of bumping into any predator that simply passes by me within their own home.