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Will Generalists Inherit the Earth?

Many people are aware of the current pressures ecosystems are facing, such as the impact of pollution, urbanisation, habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation, as well as climate change. Indirect and direct anthropogenic disturbances within nature have led to the decline and extinction of numerous species across multiple different taxa, particularly in the last few decades. However, several studies have highlighted a trend in the type of species most vulnerable to these disturbances: specialist species.

An ecological niche is a position a species has within an ecosystem, including its food, shelter, and reproductive and survival requirements. Generalist species can eat a wide variety of food, and survive in much more varied environments, but specialist species occupy a much more narrow niche. This can be due to a very restricted diet or requiring specific conditions to survive, grow, or reproduce. One well-known, charismatic specialist species is the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), which has a restricted diet, feeding almost exclusively on bamboo. Because of this, they are restricted to habitats where bamboo grows and are highly likely to become extinct if these habitats are lost.

Environmental degradation impacts specialists more than generalist species, as they are less able to adapt to the habitat changes, leading to direct mortality or the inability to reproduce, creating functionally extinct populations. Generalists are far more able to adapt to changing environments, therefore are more likely to survive these disturbances.

So why does this matter?

Beyond causing the loss of specialised species, these environmental changes can facilitate the spread of generalist species. This leads to ‘homogenized ecosystems’, where biodiversity is reduced due to specialised local species being replaced by widespread species. This can also decrease species richness in ecosystems, as generalist species can take over several niches previous occupied by multiple specialist species. Homogenization can change the functionality and structure of ecosystems, particularly if the generalist species are non-native. Community structure changes often lead to further impacts on other species within the ecosystem, causing ecological imbalances, potentially causing an extinction cascade.

What can we do to help prevent this?

Many of the anthropogenic causes of environmental disturbances require governmental policies and regulations to control and prevent damage, but there are some ways general people can help. Living a more sustainable, less wasteful life can help to reduce your individual impact on the environment. You could allow your green spaces to become more wildlife-friendly, by planting native and pollinator-friendly plants, stopping the use of pesticides and herbicides, and placing items such as bird feeders, bug hotels, and hedgehog huts. Volunteering with any local conservation organisations can also be a great way to help reduce the negative impact anthropogenic processes are having on our environment, hopefully preventing the loss of specialised species.

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