What Animals are Considered ‘Keystone Species’ in Colorado?
Whether a tiny insect or a massive animal, many different species play important roles in helping to sustain Colorado's diverse environment.
Certain animals in the Centennial State also have the further designation of being 'keystone species' due to their significant impact on the ecosystem. Keystone species can be compared to the last few turns in the game of Jenga - if you pull out one of the supporting planks, it results in the rest of the planks falling to the ground. This means that if these species were to be removed from the ecosystem, it would cause the rest of the ecosystem to collapse, or a specific habitat to drastically change.
Beavers and prairie dogs are both considered to be keystone species in Colorado.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, one of the reasons prairie dogs are such vital critters is because they are prey for so many other animals. Additionally, these rodents' burrows provide escape structures, nests, and dens for a variety of other species throughout the state. Scientists estimate that approximately 150 other species benefit from the services of prairie dogs, with at least nine in Colorado specifically depending on them.
Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers because they modify water areas in ways that are critical to native ecosystems with their dams. Beavers also encourage other species to thrive through their actions. According to the National Park Service, these aquatic mammals help to improve Colorado's water quality. Like prairie dogs, beavers act as meals for other animals in the Rocky Mountain region - it's part of the circle of life that keeps things going.
Other keystone species in Colorado include pollinators, like bees and hummingbirds, as well as decomposers, such as beetles. Pollinators contribute to the survival of many other organisms and the work that decomposers do under the surface is what helps to start the cycle of life all over again.
That being said, it can be easy to see why the topic of keystone species is a bit subjective aside from its literal definition. Frankly, there are many species that play valuable roles in the ecosystem, and would negatively impact cycles or habitats if they were to be removed. It's almost like a pyramid effect, in that if a species from the top or bottom gets wiped out, others will follow suit.
An article from National Geographic states that scientists are working on further categorizing these creatures into keystone predator species, ecosystem engineers, and mutualists.