WHAT ANIMAL IS AT THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN?

Written by: Akeem Eletu

There are a series of technical definitions of what a food chain is – but the simple answer is that a food chain is a sequence of how animals are  prey to larger animals, and how those other larger animals are prey to other larger animals. 

But as simple as this is, the irony of the food chain is that the largest animals aren’t necessarily at the top. This may make you think, “what animal is at the top of the food chain?”

This interesting piece discusses what animal is at the top of the food chain, what animal is not and other important concerns about them.

WHAT ANIMAL IS AT THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN?

The food web determines whether an animal is at the top of the food chain or not. A food web comprises all the interacting food chains present in an ecosystem. So while an animal is an apex at a particular food chain, it may not maintain the same apex spot in another food chain. But here are some animals that are at the top of the food chain.

WHAT ANIMAL IS AT THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN:

ORCAS

Orcas are apex predators with a noticeable spot at the top of their food chain. In the ocean, orcas are prey to no other animal. Orcas live in almost every ocean, from some regions of the Arctic oceans to the Antarctic oceans (but the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea are exceptions – no orcas have been found in these seas so far).

Orcas are often mistaken for whales, but they are in fact, dolphins. They are part of the dolphin family Delphinidae, and they have a reputation for being deadly and resilient hunters. These dolphins are at the top of their food chain, meaning there is no other animal that can prey on them. 

They are carnivores, and their diet is made up of fish, squids, sea birds and even seals. As a testament to their deadly hunting skills, these intelligent mammals hunt animals bigger than they are. They are the only known predators daring enough to hunt great white sharks for food.

As apex predators at the top of the food chain, they are equipped with top-notch predatory skills. Orcas have been reported to create large waves to destabilize the ice floats that serve as a refuge for seals. They do this in a bid to wash the seals off the ice floats so that they can serve as food.

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POLAR BEARS

On land, polar bears are at the top of the food chain – and these apex predators are native to the Arctic. 

They are hypercarnivores, and they live in the Arctic Circle. This is a region that encompasses the Arctic ocean and other surrounding lands. They are sometimes called Maritime bears because they spend most of their time in the sea even though they are born on land.

Of all the bear species, polar bears are the only fully carnivorous bears, and they rely largely on seals for food. They hunt seals with a common technique known as still-hunting. This hunting technique involves tracking the seal’s breathing holes with their amazing sense of smell. When they find one, they stealthily wait in silence for a seal to appear in a hole in the ice to breathe some air. Immediately the seal exhales, the scent notifies the bears, and they reach for the deal with their forepaws to drag it to the top of the ice for food. 

They also raid the birth lairs of seals in the snow for food. While polar bears may be vulnerable at a young age to wolves and other opportunistic predators in the wild, there are no known predators of adult polar bears. This fact secures their spot on the top of the food chain as apex predators.

Apart from seals, there have been photographs and even reports of polar bears climbing cliffs that are almost vertical in search of birds’ chicks and eggs. Polar bears are extraordinarily powerful, and their spot as apex predators at the top of the food chain is absolute.

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ARE HUMANS AT THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN?

Scientists argue that humans are not at the top of the food chain but somewhere in between pigs and anchovies. It is true that humans control ecosystems in many ways. Humans control and dominate ecosystems through biogeochemical cycling and land use, among many other means. 

But this denomination does not put humans at the top of the food chain when considering the global food chain. Humans are somewhere in the middle. 

This is the reality because humans in other food chains may be prey to other apex predators. When calculating the trophic level of humans in the global food chain, scientists noticed that humans are largely herbivores. Humans get about 80% of their calories from plants and the other 20% from meat. This discovery cast legitimate doubts on the notion that humans are at the top of the food chain.

But recently, humans are becoming more carnivorous. However, the change in trends is not enough to put humans at the top of the food chain.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While you may be tempted to think that great white sharks have a spot on the top of the food chain because they are also apex predators, remember that they are prey to orcas. Orcas are the true kings of the ocean, and their spot at the top of the food chain in the ocean is definitive.

On land, the same goes for polar bears. Lions, tigers and other big felines may be apex predators, but their spot on the food chain is doubtful. There have been reports of hyenas ganging up to subdue lions, tigers and other big cats, although cases are uncommon. 

There have also been reports of crocodiles making a meal out of these big cats. But the same cannot be said of polar bears.

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