keystone species

/ˈkistoʊn spisɪz/ (say 'keestohn spees1z)

noun
a species which has a disproportionate effect on an ecosystem in relation to its population size, its removal or decline resulting in significant consequences and possibly the ultimate destruction of the ecosystem.
The term keystone species was used by US biologist Robert Paine in the 1960s to describe the dramatic changes caused by the removal of a single species from an ecosystem, even though that species may not be particularly large or abundant in that ecosystem. Paine used the example of a starfish; its removal resulted in a population explosion of the mussels it kept in check, leaving little room for anything else and leading to the eventual collapse of the intertidal community of which it was part. The Californian sea otter is another classic example of a keystone species. Over-hunting in the 19th century caused its near-extinction, allowing a massive increase of the sea urchins that were part of its diet. The sea urchins, in turn, then feasted on and destroyed kelp forests which were a vital habitat for spawning fish. Balance is returning to the ecosystem since the re-introduction of sea otters.

Australian English dictionary. 2014.

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