10 Animals That Are Bad for the Environment

cattle graze in deforested Amazon land

Brasil2 / Getty Images

Animals play an important role in keeping ecosystems balanced, healthy, and strong. Like humans, animals can respond to an imbalance with extreme behavior that can be harmful to the environment. Many of these animals are invasive, and only cause problems once introduced to an area with no natural predators. Others find being confined to certain areas increases the amount of destruction. Here are 10 animals that can be bad for the Earth when nature's balance gets disrupted.

1
of 10

Elephants

Elephant in Kenya pulling down a tree

Doug Woods / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

 

Elephants are the world's largest and most powerful land animals, so it's not surprising they have a profound impact on the ecosystem. To reach food, elephants regularly break branches, uproot bushes and push down whole trees — sometimes whole strands of trees. Elephants prefer to roam across a vast territory, so forests can usually recover from the damage they cause. But when fences, farmland, and human encroachment shrink the range of these magnificent beasts, elephant behavior radically alters the environment.

2
of 10

Locusts

Thick swarm of plague locusts filling the skies and ground

CSIRO / scienceimage.csiro.au / CC BY 3.0

 

The locust swarm of lore is one life phase of a type of short-horned grasshopper. It becomes a plague under the right conditions. The swarms can cover hundreds of square miles and consist of many billions of locusts. They are highly migratory and can quickly strip whole fields of vegetation. The swarm is initiated by a population burst caused by rain followed by drought, pushing greater numbers of the insects into a smaller area. Scientists in England and Australia say these close quarters trigger a chemical response. Unfortunately, the change also creates a domino effect — swarming locusts are driven to breed and eat at an increased rate.

3
of 10

Crown-of-Thorns Sea Star

large thorny sea star on dead coral

Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

This large starfish gets its name from the venomous, long spines that cover its body. They live among and feed on coral polyps. When the species becomes overpopulated, it can destroy vast coral reef ecosystems. In fact, widespread destruction of the Great Barrier Reef is partly blamed on these sea stars, which have experienced a population explosion over the last decade or so. The outbreaks are likely due to pollution from agricultural runoff, creating algae blooms that allow the crown-of-thorns' natural predators to get a less-thorny and easier meal elsewhere. During outbreaks, the starfish feed on adult corals and prevent the maturation of young corals.

4
of 10

Cattle

Beef Cattle in overgrazed area

Mangiwau / Getty Images

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, cattle farming is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gases. Cattle emit a large volume of methane through burping and flatulence. Cattle ranching is also a major source of deforestation worldwide, most notably in South America's Amazon rain forest. Driven by the growing food demands of an expanding human population, cattle in many regions of the world are overgrazing, reducing the ecosystem's biodiversity in the process.

5
of 10

Common Carp

invasive carp in river

mark6mauno / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 

The common carp is a true bottom-feeder, uprooting, and disturbing submerged vegetation. These fish are notorious for altering their environment. After they disturb the vegetation, they release phosphorous through their droppings. The combined effect is reduced food for other animals and plants in the waterway. They are most dangerous when introduced into an alien habitat and become an invasive species. There are invasive carp in every U.S. state. Natural resource agencies in the United States and Australia spend millions annually to control the common carp.

6
of 10

Goats

herd of goats of all colors on overgrazed pasture

Oregon State University / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 

Goats can have profound negative effects on habitats that are not adapted to them. They can be voracious grazers, often with a taste for native scrub, trees, and other vegetation, turning whole woodlands into deserts if left unchecked. Feral goats are particularly bad in places like Australia and on isolated islands worldwide where human populations have attempted to establish a settlement. Goats are rugged animals that can easily revert to a feral existence if allowed to do so.

7
of 10

Cane Toads

Greyish brown cane toad with many warts standing on grass

 Florida Fish and Wildlife / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Cane toads have become wildly successful as an invasive species in Oceania, the Caribbean, and the United States. Ironically, cane toads were purposely introduced to foreign habitats to eradicate agricultural pests, and in the process, they became pests themselves. These South American natives are most dangerous to native wildlife because their poison glands are toxic to birds, mammals, fish and reptiles — and anything else that attempts to eat them.

8
of 10

Bark Beetles

lesser larch bark beetles and their galleries under the bark of a black pine tree

Gilles San Martin / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Many bark beetle species choose dead or rotting wood to reproduce in, but several species (including the mountain pine beetle of western North America) are known to attack and kill live trees. Whole stands of forest can be destroyed if bark beetle numbers get out of control. The bugs can also be carriers of disease, as is the case with the American elm bark beetle, which transmits Dutch elm disease.

9
of 10

Rats

large group of grey rats on ground stripped of vegetation
John Downer / Getty Images

Rats are wildly successful animals wherever they live — a characteristic that makes them dangerous when introduced to non-native areas. One primary example has been introducing black rats onto Lord Howe Island, a small habitat in the Tasman Sea, where much of the island's unique native wildlife has been wiped out by invading rats. Rats also bear disease, and rat population outbreaks can cause substantial food losses, especially in developing countries.

10
of 10

Humans

Climate change protest
In Pictures Ltd. / Corbis via Getty Images

Of all the animals on Earth, humans are the most environmentally destructive. Humans cause major imbalances — global warming, the extinction crisis, over-harvesting of land and sea, pollution, overpopulation, and industry. Some of these impacts are just now beginning to be recognized. For example, plastic pollution is not only a visible nuisance; it creates long-lasting health issues. Fortunately, humans are capable of rapid cultural change. They always have a choice — and a chance — for change.