Photograph by Ocean/Corbis
Many people have heard of the spotted owl, the subject of mid-80s to early-90s litigation over its legal status as an endangered species. Drawn-out battles like this one are characteristic of a phase of environmentalism that in many ways has passed. It was the age of so-called charismatic megafauna -- dolphins, caribou, this giant anteater and countless others.
Scientists have articulated in intervening years that while species are important (endangered species laws are still on the books), their interactions are really what hold together stable ecological -- and human -- communities.
An ecosystem can be compared to a body. The organism still works even with the loss of important but non-critical parts. But lose too many parts and the flesh can no longer support the life. No one's quite sure just how much damage an ecosystem can absorb and still thrive.
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