These 15 Animals Help Keep Humans Alive
There are many animals who need humans for their survival more than we need them. However, there are few others whose extinction would end our existence.
Not all of the animals on this list are cute and cuddly, but they do serve essential purposes for the continued success of our species, which is why it’s important that we take care of them.
The bees’ ability to pollinate, or carry pollen from one plant to another to fertilize it, is vital to one-third of the world’s food supply. Without bees to pollinate plants, your morning coffee with almond milk wouldn’t exist, and at least 25 other fruits and vegetables would be a thing of the past.
Even things like cotton, clover and alfalfa (used to feed cattle) would be impacted.
Bottom Line: Bees
Over the past two decades, we’ve heard that bees are in trouble. According to a 2015 United Nations report, some populations of bees have declined by 90 percent, and another 9 percent face extinction. In 1947, there were 6 million bee colonies — there are just 2.5 million today. And in 2016, nearly half of the managed beehives died in the United States.
So what is killing bees? Strangely enough, we are. Pesticides and habitat destruction are factors in the bees decline, as is climate change. According to Defenders of Wildlife, “Shifting temperature and precipitation patterns (alter) the distribution of plants and their flowering times.”
Plankton float with ocean’s currents. These microscopic organisms are essential to marine ecosystems and provide them with their food base. There are two common types of plankton — phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals) — and both are essential to the food chain.
Phytoplankton take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. In fact, they are one of the biggest producers of oxygen and absorb half of the world’s CO2. They also feed zooplankton, which then become dinner for other sea animals, and eventually, us.
Bottom Line: Plankton
Plankton is threatened primarily by climate change; as atmospheric greenhouse gases increase, the CO2 in our oceans does as well. Currently, the world’s waters are 30 percent more acidic than they were in the 18th century due to rising temperatures. An ocean with an overabundance of CO2 will weaken plankton via lower pH levels.
Oceanographer and associate research scholar at Princeton University Andrew Barton calls plankton “tremendously important," adding, “They're at the very bottom of the food chain, and what happens at the bottom impacts everybody."
Bats have a reputation for being scary and dangerous, but we truly could not survive without them. They live on every continent and in every climate and are a vital part of every ecosystem.
They make up one-fifth of all the mammals on Earth. That means, if they went extinct, 20 percent of the global mammal population would be lost.
Bottom Line: Bats
Bats do a number of things we just can’t live without — they eat pests that can damage crops, reforest green spaces, and spread seeds and organic material. Without them, most of the world’s ecosystems could not continue, and insects would also overrun most of our food sources.
But this 50 million years old species is facing big man-made threats. They are easily stressed animals, and they’ve lost significant numbers due to habitat destruction, climate change, disease and non-natural predators.
Frogs are like canaries in a coalmine — their permeable skin makes it easy for them to absorb toxins well before we do.
They are the bellwether for humanity. If something is wrong with frogs, it's just a matter of time before we see the ill effects, and unfortunately, they have been quickly declining worldwide.
Bottom Line: Frogs
Nearly 200 species of frogs have disappeared in the past 40 years — in comparison, only one would naturally become extinct every 500 years before 1980. Frogs face everything from habitat loss to disease to issues with climate change. The lowering numbers not only show irreversible damage to ecosystems, but to humans as well.
Frogs feed on algae and insects, particularly those that transmit fatal disease to humans. They are an important food source for several other animals, so their disappearance would have potentially dangerous circumstances for many ecosystems.
Fungi do so much that nothing on Earth could exist without them. They are everywhere — in the soil, air, water, on plants and animals, on food and even in humans. There are over half a million species of fungi on the planet, yet we only know of the existence of 1 percent of them.
We use fungi for fermentation of wine, beer, breed and cheese, and mushrooms are a large staple of our diets. Fungi are also medicinal — for example, penicillin is made from penicillium. “[Fungi also enhances] your immune system, and it will help you also against cancer, against inflammations, antiviral, it’s antibacterial, so it has a huge array of medicinal properties,” according to the the University of Innsbruck’s Ursula Peintner.
Bottom Line: Fungi
Fungi serve as nature’s “garbage disposals” — they help decompose all organic matter on the planet. By doing this, they release nutrients, which feeds the soil in which healthy plants grow.
If fungi didn’t exist, the planet would have been buried under dead matter long ago.
Sure, they’re pests when they get into your home, but we can’t live without ants, and luckily, we don’t have to. There are a whopping 12,000 species in the Formicidae family, and it is estimated that another 12,000 species have yet to be discovered.
Just one ant colony has over 20 million ants, so it is safe to say they aren’t going extinct anytime soon.
Bottom Line: Ants
Ants are the fungi of insects — they feed on organic waste, which keeps our environment clean, and allow fungi and bacteria to grow on the matter they feed from and break it down even further.
Ants also dig plenty of tunnels, which aerates the soil. This recycles nutrients that are essential for the growth of healthy plants that grow from it. Ants also help reduce the need for irrigation and the use of chemical fertilizers.
Fish are in nearly every body of water on Earth, from oceans to ponds and everything in between; humans have been feeding on them for centuries. Pollution, overfishing, habitat loss and climate change are now taking its toll on marine life, and fish are no exception to this.
Over two-thirds of the predatory fish population has declined in the last century. This does not bode well for humanity — not only are fish a major staple of our diet, they are also an essential part of the food chain, as they feed upon various marine species, such as other fish, aquatic plants, plankton and algae. They also feed on terrestrial species, such as turtles, insects, frogs, mice and snakes.
Bottom Line: Fish
Fish recycle nutrients that all marine species need for survival. This, in turn, supports the ocean ecosystem. To get rid of the excess calcium they ingest from seawater, bony fish, the majority of marine species, produce carbonate crystals and excrete them back into the ocean. This alkaline helps balance the ocean’s acidity.
Excess carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere raises the CO2 in the world’s oceans, which makes them more acidic and a threat to animals and humans alike.
Bacteria, like fungi, are pretty much everywhere. We have trillions of the critters in and on our bodies alone — and without them, we would cease to exist.
They help us digest food by breaking it down, supplying us with vitamins and minerals from that food in the process. The bacteria that lives in our throats, noses, intestines and on our skin works with the immune system to keep harmful bacteria at bay.
Bottom Line: Bacteria
Also like fungi, bacteria helps decompose organic matter, cycling carbon and nitrogen essential for human survival. They are used in medicine for everything from vaccines to antibiotics.
Bacterial nitrogen helps create amino acids in plants and serves as a harvesting agent. They can also digest harmful organic pollutants that pose a threat to humans or even change the weather — their particles create precipitation.
Worms lack the “cute” factor of other animals but make up for it in their purpose, and their conservation is vital to our survival. Some believe that they are the most essential of all the species on the planet.
And that includes Charles Darwin, who once said, “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.”
Bottom Line: Worms
Worms eat everything — dead plants, leaves, and animals, fungi and bacteria. They break down and recycle this organic material into the soil, which serves as a natural fertilizer that allows for the growth of plants.
They also live underground, where they mix, loosen and oxygenate the soil as they move the tunnels they create and keep it “clean” through the process of “bioremediation,” a process by which they degrade toxic microorganisms. Like most of the other organisms on this list, they are also a critical part of the food chain.
As our closest living relatives, primates are essential to our survival, but they, too, are in danger of extinction. The illegal pet trade, hunting, habitat loss and climate change are all culprits in their dwindling numbers.
University of Illinois anthropology professor Paul Garber said, “These primates cling to life in the forests of countries such as China, Madagascar, Indonesia, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo … sadly, in the next 25 years, many of these primate species will disappear unless we make conservation a global priority. This, by itself, would be a tragic loss. Now, consider the hundreds of other species facing a similar fate around the world, and you get a sense of what’s truly at stake.”
Bottom Line: Primates
Primates play a big part in the ecological balance of the forests in which they live. They disperse seeds and are prey and predators to other species. They do their part in the diversification of plants that are primary sources of food for other species, including humans.
The extinction of primates will eventually take its toll on the world's plants and on animal and human food security.
Birds, like other animals on this list, are predators, prey and dispersers of seed. Even after they die, they become food for scavengers and decomposers. They are pollinators and provide nutrients for parasites that hitch a ride on them from plant to plant.
They also control pests and cycle nutrients through marine ecosystems. Their presence or absence in ecosystems affects other species down the line.
Bottom Line: Birds
Once again, human activity is the culprit in their decreasing numbers. We’ve lost over 100 species to climate change, habitat loss, overhunting and non-natural predators since 1600.
Today, 12 percent of all birds — approximately 1,200 species — are endangered, threatened or vulnerable. Since 1970, 3 billion birds have disappeared across North America alone.
Yes, termites are unwanted, particularly when it comes to wooden homes, but they are also essential to world ecosystems.
They are nature's most proficient recyclers — like worms and ants, they burrow and aerate soil, which allows for the mixing of nutrients when it rains. They feed on or break down organic matter, which makes way for new plants to grow.
Bottom Line: Termites
Termites are everywhere and have been a vital presence on Earth for 200 million years. Anywhere there is greenery, these efficient pros are diligently working.
There are over 2500 species of termites only, and only 5 percent of them damage structures. It may not seem like it's a small price to pay for the important work they do, but we simply wouldn’t be here without them.
Butterflies aren’t just pretty — they are symbols of a healthy ecosystem. An area replete with butterflies (and moths) hints at a wide-range of invertebrates in a particular location. They also spread pollen and seed and provide natural pest control.
They are part of the food chain and support parasites specific to other species. Their presence — or lack of it — plays a vital role in the study of climate change and habitat loss.
Bottom Line: Butterflies
As with most of the animals on this list, they are also going extinct for precisely the reasons we mentioned. On the West Coast of North America, for example, butterfly populations have declined by 1.6 percent each year.
The western monarch, in particular, is nearing extinction — its numbers have declined 99.9 percent since the 1980s.
These “rainforests of the sea” are critical to ocean life and even terrestrial ecosystems. A quarter of the world’s fish depend on coral reefs for food, shelter and reproduction. They protect coastlines around the world from storms, provide jobs (in fishing and recreation) and even produce medicine.
They support nearly 4,000 species of fish and 800 species of hard corals; it is also thought billions of species that have yet to be discovered live within their confines.
Bottom Line: Coral Reefs
Coral reef systems have always been threatened by natural occurrences such as disease and storms. However, humans have sped up their demise with overfishing, pollution and climate change, all of which are increasing ocean acidification.
Coral reefs are extremely delicate — any stress to them causes coral bleaching (due to sea temperatures being outside of the normal range) and even death.
Sure, humans can probably survive without dogs, but what a lonely life it would be! Canines have been our best friends for about 11,000 years. In fact, that friendship may have been critical in allowing humans to thrive.
A 2012 study of fossilized dog bones shows that early man possibly engaged in dog worship, as their bones were made into jewelry. Scientists believe, if they were merely used for food, that wouldn’t have been the case. You don’t see too many canines in cave art either — which means there were likely hunting companions and not the hunted.
Bottom Line: Dogs
It is also believed that man’s alliance with dogs led Neanderthals to extinction. This domesticated wolf dog traveled great distances with his human companion in search of food. He tracked other animals from farther away and was able to get to them faster than humans.
Once a dog surrounded the animal in packs, all that was left for the human to do was finish the hunt and retrieve the meaty bounty. This gave humans a leg up in evolution over Neanderthals.