God spoke: “Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind: cattle and reptiles and wild animals—all kinds.” And there it was: wild animals of every kind, cattle of all kinds, every sort of reptile and bug. God saw that it was good. [Genesis 1:24-25 (MSG)]
When the grands visit, we usually take them to a nearby preserve where we walk the boardwalk and hope to catch sight of one of the more than 150 gopher tortoises living there. We watch them lumber through the sand, munch on prickly pear cactus, or sun on the apron of their burrows.
The gopher tortoise is what’s called a “keystone species,” meaning it plays a unique and crucial role in holding together a habitat. A keystone species can be a plant, animal, fungi, or even bacteria. It isn’t necessarily the largest or most plentiful species in an ecosystem but, if it were to disappear, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.
Gopher tortoises are considered keystones because they are ecosystem engineers capable of digging tunnels forty feet long and ten feet deep. Their burrows provide refuge for some 350 to 400 other species, including snakes, rodents, armadillos, rabbits, lizards, worms, spiders and bugs. Some animals use the burrows as homes and others hide there from predators. In the case of fire, animals can escape the blaze in the deep tunnels.
Although these prehistoric looking creatures have lived on the earth millions of years, their survival is now endangered by predators, herbicides, and habitat destruction (better known as “progress”). Their population has declined by 80% in the last century and the gopher tortoise’s extinction is a real possibility. Sadly, its disappearance would lead to the disappearance of those other species that share its habitat. The gopher tortoise carries more than a carapace on his back—he carries the future of his ecosystem!
Other keystone species include sea otters, mangroves, prairie dogs, wolves, salmon, saguaro cactus, and bees. Not all are ecosystem engineers like the gopher tortoise but each is essential to its specific habitat and fulfills a critical ecological role that no other species can accomplish. It’s amazing how intricate God’s creation is and how interdependent various species are. Every living thing seems to uniquely mesh with others, much like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When a piece goes missing, however, the puzzle ceases to come together as it should.
Although mankind clearly has a huge impact on the environment, we’re not a keystone species. In fact, some scientists argue that, if we were to disappear, the environment would improve! With the cessation of so many human activities because of COVID lockdowns, greenhouse gas emissions reduced, water quality improved, noise pollution lessened, air quality improved, and nature began healing. The break, however, was short-lived and now that many restrictions have been lifted, pollution has returned to pre-pandemic levels in most areas.
After God created the world and everything in it, He found it all to be good. He then gave mankind the responsibility for His beautiful creation. I wonder if He is as pleased with the state of our world today as he was when He turned its care over to us. Let us remember that each one of God’s creatures (whether bee, gopher tortoise, or mangrove) is His handiwork and precious to Him. Today (and everyday), let us consider what we can do to keep His creation functioning as He meant it to do!
Father of all, Creator and ruler of the universe, You entrusted your world to us as a gift. Help us to care for it and all people, that we may live in right relationship—with You, with ourselves, with one another, and with creation. [From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops]