On television and in scientific journals, the story of how carnivores influence ecosystems has seized imaginations. From wolves in North America to lions in Africa and dingoes in Australia, top predators are thought to exert tight control over the populations and behaviours of other animals, shaping the entire food web down to the vegetation through a ‘trophic cascade’. This story is popular in part because it supports calls to conserve large carnivores as ‘keystone species’ for whole ecosystems. It also offers the promise of a robust rule within ecology, a field in which researchers have yearned for more predictive power.
But several studies in recent years have raised questions about the top-predator rule in the high-profile cases of the wolf and the dingo. That has led some scientists to suggest that the field’s fascination with top predators stems not from their relative importance, but rather from society’s interest in the big, the dangerous and the vulnerable. “Predators can be important,” says Oswald Schmitz, an ecologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, “but they aren’t a panacea.”