An apex predator is the hardcore animal at the top of its food chain, the baddest of the bad, with no natural predators in its ecosystem. Think of the kind of creature that can strut, swim or fly confidently through its habitat, unconcerned, never having to look over its shoulder—a lion, a snow leopard, an orca, a polar bear or golden eagle, for example. But it’s not all take and no give; these animals fulfill very important ecological roles, as they regulate prey populations and change prey behavior in ways that greatly benefit many other species.
These dominant predators often have massive home ranges but small population densities, which unfortunately means human interference and habitat encroachment can cause serious threats to their survival. In some instances, humans have introduced apex predators—a clear example being dingoes in Australia, which scientists think were brought to the country between 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Other times, if humans kill off the ecosystem’s natural apex predators, other animals rise up to become the dominant predators. For instance, when settlers killed off wolves, pumas and mountain lions, coyotes stepped into their roles as the new dominant hunter on those lands.
Decreasing apex predator populations has a major effect on the ecosystems where they live, because when the top predators disappear from an ecosystem, medium-sized predators’ populations (mesopredators) quickly boom. It’s called mesopredator release. This phenomenon decreases biodiversity, because the sudden spike in mesopredator populations can force changes way too fast in an ecosystem’s structures. According to the trophic cascade theory, apex predation is crucial in limiting an ecosystem’s population size for various species.
One of the clearest examples of a trophic cascade is the gray wolf’s eradication and then reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park. When humans interfered with the gray wolf population in the park, the elk population exploded and grazed across the land, killing off of young brush and trees and forcing beavers to move out of the area. It was definitely one of those “whoopsie” scenarios in science. Since their reintroduction in the 1990s, gray wolves have brought some balance back to the ecosystem.
Seeing an apex predator maneuver unbothered in the wild is a sight to behold. If that’s something you have on your travel bucket list, here are five travel experiences that can’t be missed:
1. Polar Bears
For thousands of years, polar bears have reigned as the top predator in the Arctic marine regions. Aside from a few massive walruses able to pierce an unlucky polar bear’s body with their powerful tusks, no one outside of humans stands a chance at hurting these animals. Their migration swims average more than a hundred miles and are helped by the fact that their massive dinner-plate-sized paws are slightly webbed. They can smell prey from more than 20 miles away and can even smell an animal from under three feet of dense snow. Polar bears are the biggest bear species—males can be 10 feet in length and up to 1,700 pounds. Ursus maritimus have large, slightly hooked canine teeth almost two inches in length that can tear through thick blubber and meat without a problem.
On our Classic Polar Bear Adventure in the Polar Bear Capital of the World in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, you can observe and photograph these beasts from the safety of our Polar Rover vehicles. It’s possible to see mothers patiently teaching their baby cubs the ways of the world, young males play-fighting or a massive lone male bear slowly meandering over the silent tundra. Our passionate and well-educated Expedition Leaders interpret all of this behavior and can help you understand these beautiful creatures better. You never know where or when you may spot a polar bear in these parts—we’ve even had trips where we see them from our bus right after landing at the airport!
The orca (Orcinus orca) isn’t called the killer whale for no reason. This instantly recognizable black and white marine animal is actually a member of the dolphin family and combines curiosity and charisma with stealthy predation skills to make it one of the most feared animals in the ocean. They don’t work alone, either—these incredibly social beings travel in pods of up to 40 individuals and have complex forms of communication. Orcas’ teamwork, agility, stamina, size (they can weigh up to six tons!), strength and intelligence have cemented their reputation as one of the planet’s premier apex predators. They strategize their coordinated hunts in a way that lets them pursue animals five times their size. They often target whale calves, separating them from their mothers and drowning them, then tearing into them with their 45 teeth that are three inches long.
Killer whales are found in all oceans, but they are most abundant in colder waters like Antarctica, Norway and Alaska. It’s estimated that half the world’s population of orcas (around 25,000) hang out there. On an expedition cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula, some travelers have even been able to witness orcas crashing into icebergs to knock unsuspecting sea lions into the water.
Orcas are also commonly spotted on the coastal fjords of western Iceland, where they feast on the abundant herring and often put on vivid aerial displays. The village of Grundarfjörður on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a prime location for orca watching, but Húsavík on Iceland’s northern coast is another place orcas call home, mainly during summer. The waters around Norway’s northern region are some of the richest fishing spots in the world, making it a prime place for orcas to come and dine as well.
In North America, Alaska has 18 pods of resident orcas, and most like to gather in the Kenai Fjords, around Resurrection Bay, as well as in Kachemak Bay. When the pack ice advances off the north of the state, they head for the shallow waters off south-eastern Alaska to gorge on king salmon and for the females to calve.
Hidden high in the Himalayas, camouflaged between the harsh ice and rocky terrain, lives a stealthy apex predator known as the “ghost of the mountain.” The elusive snow leopard is an absolute master camouflage artist that has adapted to survive and merge into its forbidding terrain by concealing itself cleverly among craggy rocks and deep gorges. It rests on tall ridges at altitudes of up to 9,000 feet to get the best views for hunting, lying low and quiet in crevices at its strategic lookouts. When the time is right, the surefooted cat strikes at prey like ibex, urial and bharal, charging at high speeds, its long, bushy tail providing extra balance on the steep slopes and its powerful hind legs enabling it to leap several times its body length. Anyone who has seen video of a snow leopard running after its prey knows that they just go for it, audaciously and boldly flinging themselves into what seem to be impossible situations, then effortlessly escaping, prey in mouth.
As the top predator in this ecosystem, Uncia uncia keeps countless other animal and plant populations in balance, as they prey on grazers. Their diet ultimately benefits our shared planet by helping the largest freshwater reservoirs flourish and stay clean. Snow leopards are found in the high mountain ranges of Central Asia, including the Himalayas, as well as Bhutan, Nepal and Siberia. On our Land of the Snow Leopard trip, we explore the heights of Ladakh, a former Silk Road kingdom in northern India, for the chance to spot these cats in the wild.
The term “King of the Jungle” might lead some to believe that the male lion is the top hunter, but “Queen of the Jungle” is more like it. Lionesses are the primary hunters in a lion pack, as their smaller size hides them better as they stalk their prey through savanna grass and enables them to be 30% faster than their male counterparts. With relatively small hearts and lungs, lions are not inherently fast runners, which is why they prefer to stalk first; they can reach a maximum speed of around 35 miles per hour, but they can only keep up this pace for around 300–500 feet. Additionally, lionesses hunt together cooperatively in packs, increasing their chances of capturing prey successfully. Once the lioness sneaks up on her prey, she uses her powerful claws to maul and crush its neck, leaving it paralyzed to be taken back to the lion’s home for dinner.
Male lions also hunt sometimes, but when they do, it’s much more straightforward. They go for the big prey and corner it strategically, counting on their weight, brute strength and iconic bravery. Prey vary by location, but include elephants, buffalo, giraffes, gazelles, impalas, warthogs and wildebeests. If larger prey isn’t available, lions will eat birds, rodents, fish, ostrich eggs, amphibians and reptiles, as well as scavenge.
The African lion (Panthera leo) once inhabited parts of Europe, southwest Asia and north Africa, but they have disappeared from 94% of their historic range and now live mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, aside from a small group of Asiatic lions that live in India’s Gir Forest. Want the chance to see an African lion in the wild? Join us on our Ultimate East Africa Safari.
There’s a reason Mongolians have hunted with golden eagles for centuries. In addition to the belief that it’s a more ethical way of hunting, these birds are built for killing. They can even take down a Mongolian wolf! Bigger and more aggressive than bald eagles, golden eagles can carry up to eight pounds during flight and can fly up to 80 miles per hour, with an average speed of 28–32 miles per hour. On a focused dive, golden eagles have been known to reach 200 miles per hour! They often work in pairs while hunting: One eagle drives the prey to its waiting partner. Their favorite prey includes other birds, marmots, hares, mice, martens, foxes and even deer. When golden eagles attack, they generally swoop down with their feet extended and talons out. Three front talons face forward and the back talon, called the hallux, comes in behind. They hit with one foot around the back of their victim’s head or neck and the other foot at its shoulder, with powerful penetration that can even enter the shoulder blade of a caribou calf.
These majestic birds range from Mexico through much of western North America as far north as Alaska. They can also be found in Asia, northern Africa and Europe. Golden eagles escaped the extinction suffered by other species in Switzerland at the turn of the 20th century, but just barely. We often spot them in the Alps on our Wild Switzerland adventure.
Although apex predators are not hunted and killed by other animals, they are not safe from humans. Many of the world’s top predators are either endangered or have had their populations drop drastically over the years due to humans killing them to protect livestock or other people, hunting them for food or encroaching on their environments, resulting in habitat loss. Responsible ecotourism is one way to help show the local communities where they live that these animals not only are a very important part of the ecosystem, but they are also creatures that are revered by nature lovers from all around the world.