Sharks are critical in helping ecosystems recover from extreme climatic events, according to a new study.
The conclusions came after scientists were able to determine the importance of the apex predator to a unique ecosystem following an extreme marine heatwave in 2011, which wiped out a quarter of one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse seagrass meadows in Shark Bay, Western Australia.
A team of experts from Florida International University (FIU), the University of Washington and Deakin University in Australia, knew from a previous study how tiger sharks in the bay protected the meadows by altering the behaviour of dugongs and turtles, which graze on the seagrass, into less destructive feeding patterns. They wanted to know what would happen if there were no sharks.
“We wanted an answer to the question: can the absence of large predators exacerbate climate change effects?” said Rob Nowicki, lead author and a research affiliate at Mote Marine Laboratory, who conducted the study as a PhD student at FIU. “Can it cause an already bad situation to spiral downwards?”