by Sneed B. Collard III, author of Little Killers: The Ferocious Lives of Puny Predators
I first became fascinated by tiny predators as a biology student at UC Berkeley. I’d been around animals all my life, but taking invertebrate zoology and poking around tidepools made me firmly realize that life on Earth runs on “small” more than “big.”
I’m not denying that tigers, great white sharks, and golden eagles are impressive, but the reason we humans are so captivated by them has more to do with where we look than any superiority these animals have over others. Little predators vastly outnumber big, charismatic predators both in variety and numbers—and they are every bit as interesting. What’s more, they have a bigger impact on our environment.
Take driver ants, social insects that swarm out from underground galleries in a never-ending search for prey. Up to 22 million driver ants can live in a single colony while their queens can pump out one to two million eggs per month. To feed this mountain of mouths, driver ants not only capture any prey they can bring down, from other ants to birds and small mammals. They also strip the carcasses of dead animals, keeping the forest cleaner and healthier. Scientists believe, in fact, that by attacking such a large variety of prey, the ants keep the entire forest ecosystem in balance by not letting any one species become too prevalent.
Almost any little killer you look at, however, has important impacts on the planet. Ladybird beetles (which you may know as ladybugs) control aphids and other pests. Ctenophores, or comb jellies, are important food for everything from sea turtles to other ctenophores—and when they’re transported to the wrong places, they become implacable pests, all but bringing down entire fisheries in some locations. At the microscopic level, we can only begin to understand how important tiny predators are in keeping bacteria, protists, and other animals in check—or how important they are in keeping our ecosystems healthy.
This Earth Day, while you’re talking about saving cheetahs and whales, don’t forget the little guys! We still have vast amounts to learn about them, but we already know that they are key players in keeping the planet habitable. What’s more, they are eminently more watchable. Don’t believe me? Take your class outside and conduct a contest to see who can spot a mountain lion or a spider first. I know who I’ll put my money on!
Excerpt from Little Killers
Take your students to a place with a good variety of plants (lawns will be tough). Divide the class into teams and have them look for little animals, which you can define as smaller than your finger. For each animal they find, have them take a picture or, better yet, make a sketch of the animal. Also have them estimate how many of that kind of animal they find and note where they found it, e.g. on a branch, under leaves, in a web. Warn them not to touch the animals that they see.
When you’re done collecting data, return to class and share the photos and drawings. For each one, ask the class what kind of animal they think it is. Then ask them if they think it is a predator or prey, and why?
Finally, share what you all learned from this exercise and what they think about which is more important to the planet, smaller or larger animals?
- Sketch pads (or notebooks) and pencils
- Cameras (optional but useful)
- Magnifying glasses
- Appropriate weather gear
Praise for Little Killers
“Young browsers will still devour this, and budding zoologists will relish the heaping helpings of specific species names and natural detail.”—Booklist
“Collard infuses Little Killers with a finely tuned sense of balance Collard believes that the balance of nature is threatened if any of these species are hindered or unnaturally abetted in their usual course by society’s use (or abuse) of the resources of Nature. Moreover, a return of that balance depends partly on young readers’ awareness because they are life-long adventurers, life-long travelers of planet Earth, future voters, current junior scientists, and future adult scientists.”-ALAN’s Picks
“[A]ttractive for recreational reading as well as for brief reports.” – BayViews
Sneed B. Collard III graduated with honors in marine biology and earned a master’s degree in scientific instrumentation. He has written about 90 books for young people, including Little Killers: The Ferocious Lives of Puny Predators. Learn more about Sneed, his books and author visits at his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com, and follow the birding adventures of him and his son at their blog www.fathersonbirding.com.
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