What Is An Apex Predator?

Category: Feeding Behavior.

The word apex means top, or highest, and so an apex predator is a carnivorous animal that makes its living at the top of its food chain. It can kill and eat the biggest prey animals in its locale with good confidence, as it’s unlikely to be injured or killed in its efforts. Many apex predators can drive away or kill smaller or less effective predators in their area, to get rid of any competition. A good example is seen when a pair or pack of wolves move into the territory of coyotes. The coyotes tend to bow out of the area rather than take the risk of getting into potentially fatal fights with the wolves.

Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). © Molly Ebersold.

In the oceans

In the oceans, the apex predators are sharks and killer whales, and on land, we have the big cats, like lions and tigers, as well as the larger members of the canine family, like the wolves. Bears are also apex predators, as are the large birds of prey like eagles, hawks and owls. Among the reptiles, we see pythons and anacondas.

Siberian tiger. © Appaloosa.

Some are small

Apex predators don’t have to be large, though. Electric eels, for example, are only small and thin, but they have a brilliant defense that no other animal can get around – humans, jaguars, piranhas and caimans all avoid them because of their powerful electric shocks.

They are not immune

Despite all this, even big apex predators aren’t totally immune to enemies – they can be killed or injured by other animals, even by bigger and stronger members of their own species. Also, older or sick apex predators can be taken down by groups of smaller animals – wild dogs and hyenas sometimes gang up on big cats. In a one-to-one scrap, the big cat would win, but the sheer number of dogs becomes too much.

Bald Eagle. © Joby Joseph.

They are important

Apex predators affect the distribution and behavior of other animals around the ecosystem. These predators prevent one particular species from monopolizing an area or a resource within that area, by keeping its population down. This allows other animals to flourish within the area, increasing the species diversity. The more predators there are, the more types of smaller species you’ll see.

Killer whale. © Robert Pitman.

You will see higher biodiversity

Studies have demonstrated that areas with apex predators have significantly higher biodiversity, and more members within each different species. Areas with no apex predators tend to lack certain species types. This is because, with no bigger predators to check them, smaller predators eat too many of the lower species, as well as the indirectly causing the overeating of plants by herbivore prey species. This is an imbalance that affects all levels of the food chain.

Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis). © Matěj Baťha.

Terrestrial food chain

Land food chains are usually much shorter than marine ones, with just three levels. The third levels are usually occupied by the wolves, big cats, crocodiles and constrictor snakes. Not all apex predators are great carnivores like these animals, though. Grizzly bears and humans are at the top of their food chains, and they are omnivorous.

Apex predators don’t even have to be fierce!

The whale shark, the planet’s biggest fish, is a real gentle giant. It only eats small fish, but it’s a filter feeder and glides through the ocean collecting its prey. Due to its sheer size, though, it has no natural predators.

Apex predator list

  1. Cheetah
  2. Grizzly bear
  3. Jaguar
  4. Killer whale
  5. Komodo dragon
  6. Leopard
  7. Lion
  8. Polar bear
  9. Shark
  10. Tiger
  11. Wolf

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