Habitat loss is the destruction or alteration of the necessary conditions for plants and animals to survive in a particular place. It affects not only individual species but the entire ecosystem.
The world’s forests, lakes, swamps, plains, and other habitats are reduced in size or, in the worst case, completely disappear.
What are the main kinds of habitat loss?
Habitat destruction is what we most commonly think of when we think of habitat loss. Major parts of a habitat are cleared and destroyed by cutting down trees, filling in wetlands, dredging rivers, or mowing fields.
Habitat fragmentation is common in areas that have undergone urban development, where roads or buildings have cut up large areas. These areas of fragmented habitat can affect species that need a large territory to find mates or food. It can also make it more difficult for migratory species to find food and shelter during their migration routes.
This is when habitats become degraded over time by causes such as invasive species, pollution, or a disruption to the ecosystem. For example, some habitats can become so polluted that wildlife can no longer live there.
What is Habitat destruction?
Habitat destruction tends to be what we commonly think of when discussing habitat loss. Habitat destruction eliminates or alters the conditions for animals and plants to survive. For example, major parts of a habitat are cleared and destroyed by cutting down trees, filling wetlands, dredging rivers, or mowing fields.
The process of habitat destruction sees a natural habitat incapable of supporting its native species. As a result, the organisms previously inhabited the site are displaced or die. This reduces biodiversity and species abundance.
Habitat destruction is one of the biggest threats facing plants and animal species worldwide. The loss of habitat has a major impact on the planet’s ability to sustain life, impacting individual species and the global ecosystem’s health.
Finding a balance between what humans and animals need will help to prevent habitat destruction. For example, some scientists think that if we put aside half of Earth’s land and water for nature, we could save up to 90 percent of all species.
What are the effects of habitat loss?
Habitat loss is considered one of, if not the biggest, threats to life on our planet today. It’s the main threat to 85% of all plant and animal species that are endangered or threatened.
Habitat loss can affect ecosystems in several different ways:
- Reduced Biodiversity
In one ecosystem, you could expect hundreds or thousands of different species of plants and animals. When that place experiences habitat loss, this number will decrease dramatically. When an animal loses its habitat that it needs to survive, limiting its access to food, water, and shelter, its species’ numbers will decline and head towards endangerment or even extinction. Between 14,000 to 35,000 species are at risk of death, with habitat loss being one of the main causes.
- Ripple Effect on Other Species
In an ecosystem, every species is connected by the food chain. When one species’ numbers decline or become extinct, this will have an impact on other species living in the same habitat or ecosystem. For example, when sea otter numbers decline, the population numbers of their prey, sea urchins, can increase dramatically. However, sea urchins eat kelp. If there are too many sea urchins, they’ll significantly reduce the size of kelp forests, and many other marine species rely on this habitat too.
- Less Pollination and Seed Dispersal
Many plants, both wild and agricultural, depend on pollination to reproduce. For example, fruits and vegetables depend on bees and other insects to take pollen from flower to flower. However, as you may know, bee numbers are on the decline, primarily because of habitat loss. In addition, the increase in intensive farming and urban development has meant that bees have lost some food sources. When there are fewer bees to pollinate the flowers and plants, there will be fewer flowers and plants that can successfully reproduce.
- More Carbon Dioxide
When forests, woodlands, and other areas with a large cover of trees and vegetation become reduced, they can’t absorb as much carbon dioxide as they used to. This means that more greenhouse gas will be released into the atmosphere, worsening climate change’s effects.
- More Plant Pests
When there are fewer plant species because of habitat destruction, it’s much easier for pests to spread. This could lead to the eradication of an entire plant species. More insects and animals will eat the problems when there is greater plant diversity. Habitat loss puts plant species at risk.
- Indirect Effects on Humans
Humans depend on the biodiversity of ecosystems and habitats for food, clothing, shelter, and many other reasons. A diverse range of crops can protect farms against low crop yield or crop failures. However, this also means that reduced biodiversity makes farmers more at risk of crop failure, which results in less food to eat or sell.
What are the causes of habitat loss?
Human actions largely cause habitat loss.
The loss of forests is mostly caused by agricultural expansion for farmland or timber harvesting. Massive trees and forestland are cut down to make room for agricultural land. The land is also converted to make more room for growing populations of people. This disrupts and displaces many plant and animal species and reduces the area in which they have to live.
- Meat Production
The feed production necessary for livestock has a massive impact on the surrounding environments and is a cause of habitat loss. Feed cows can take a lot of water, fertilizer, and fossil fuels. It takes 660 gallons of water to produce just one hamburger. Millions of acres of land are used to make feed for livestock.
- Coastal Development
Coral reefs are a rich and diverse ecosystem but are also at risk of habitat loss. Coastal development can affect the ecosystem, such as destructive fishing practices, boat anchors, and even tourists touching or removing corals. Overfishing is a huge issue too. When too many fish are removed from the ecosystem, it will ripple across the habitat and affect other species. Coral bleaching due to climate change also massively affects marine life.
When a predator’s species number decreases, this can lead to its prey becoming overpopulated in the habitat. In addition, prey animals tend to eat grass and vegetation, so when there are lots more of them, more grass will be eaten. Sometimes, it will be consumed faster than it can grow back. Overgrazing can also occur with groups of livestock on farmland.
Pollution has a huge impact on just about every ecosystem, but freshwater habitats are the most affected. They can become polluted with waste, acid rain, pesticides, and fertilizers. This affects not only the species living in the water but also the animals which go to freshwater as a source of food or water.
- Climate Change
Climate change is becoming an increasing factor in habitat loss. Climate change can affect the temperature and seasons, which will naturally have a ripple effect on the species which live in these places. For example, the oceans are becoming warmer, which means ice is melting. Animals that live on the ice will experience habitat loss, but so will species that live in areas where the sea level is rising and submerging the land.
Examples of habitat loss
Habitat loss occurs worldwide on big and small scales, but one of the biggest examples is the Amazon Rainforest. It’s experiencing deforestation on a massive scale.
Around 17% of the forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mostly due to the land being cleared for cattle ranches. In addition, there is a lack of support for sustainable development and nature conservation, so the forest’s needs are pushed aside for agricultural development.
As a result of this loss, more and more species that live in the Amazon Rainforest are at risk of extinction. These are just some of the species which are endangered or threatened:
- South American tapir;
- giant river otters;
- white-cheeked spider monkey;
- hyacinth macaw;
- pink Amazon dolphin.
How can we stop habitat loss?
While habitat loss and destruction are often the results of large-scale farming operations, there are still some ways that you can adapt your everyday life to become more sustainable and aware of the way our actions affect the environment.
- Reduce Your Water
The planet only has so much water, mostly from lakes and rivers. Using too much can affect the plant and animal species that live there. You could turn off the tap while brushing your teeth or opt for showers instead of baths to combat this.
- Use Less Palm Oil
Many rainforests are destroyed to make room to grow trees for palm oil. Palm oil is found in many everyday products, such as soap, shampoo, bread, chocolate, and cookies, so it’s a good idea to check and see if what you’re buying contains palm oil. Then, opt for the rainforest-friendly option!
- Plant a Garden
You can help to create a habitat on a smaller scale. For example, plant a garden full of flowers and various plants to make a thriving ecosystem perfect for insects, birds, and other animals you might find in your local area.
- Don’t Use Fertiliser
If plant fertilizer gets into the water system, it can have devastating effects on algae life down the line. So instead, use natural fertilizers or plant local flowers which will thrive in the environment in the first place.
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
One of the best things we can do is reduce our production waste. Recycle paper, donate old toys and clothes to charities, and make sure that you reduce as much waste that goes to the landfill as possible.