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Habitat Destruction

Introduces ways humans cause habitat loss and destruction.

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What's happening to this land?

This picture, taken in southern Mexico, shows land being cleared for agriculture. The forest has been cut down and burned to make room for a a farm. In the process, homes to many plants and animals were destroyed. This is an example of habitat destruction.

Habitat Destruction

From a human point of view, a habitat is where you live, go to school, and go to have fun. Your habitat can be altered, and you can easily adapt. Most people live in a few different places and go to a number of different schools throughout their life. But a plant or animal may not be able to adapt to a changed habitat. A habitat is the natural home or environment of an organism. Humans often destroy the habitats of other organisms. Habitat destruction can cause the extinction of species. Extinction is the complete disappearance of a species. Once a species is extinct, it can never recover. Some ways humans cause habitat destruction are by clearing land and by introducing non-native species of plants and animals.

Land Loss

Clearing land for agriculture and development is a major cause of habitat destruction. Within the past 100 years, the amount of total land used for agriculture has almost doubled. Land used for grazing cattle has more than doubled. Agriculture alone has cost the United States half of its wetlands (Figure below) and almost all of its tallgrass prairies (Figure below). Native prairie ecosystems, with their thick fertile soils, deep-rooted grasses, diversity of colorful flowers, burrowing prairie dogs, and herds of bison and other animals, have virtually disappeared (Figure below).

Wetlands such as this one in Cape May, New Jersey, filter water and protect coastal lands from storms and floods.

Big bluestem grasses as tall as a human were one of the species of the tallgrass prairie, largely destroyed by agricultural use.

Herds of bison also made up part of the tallgrass prairie community.

Slash-and-Burn Agriculture

Other habitats that are being rapidly destroyed are forests, especially tropical rainforests. The largest cause of deforestation today is slash-and-burn agriculture (shown in the opening image). This means that when people want to turn a forest into a farm, they cut down all of the trees and then burn the remainder of the forest. This technique is used by over 200 million people in tropical forests throughout the world.

As a consequence of slash-and-burn agriculture, nutrients are quickly lost from the soil. This often results in people abandoning the land within a few years. Then the top soil erodes and desertification can follow. Desertification turns forest into a desert, where it is difficult for plants to grow. Half of the Earth’s mature tropical forests are gone. At current rates of deforestation, all tropical forests will be gone by the year 2090.

Non-native Species

One of the main causes of extinction is introduction of exotic species into an environment. These exotic and new species can also be called invasive species or non-native species. These non-native species, being new to an area, may not have natural predators in the new habitat, which allows their populations to easily adapt and grow. Invasive species out-compete the native species for resources. Sometimes invasive species are so successful at living in a certain habitat that the native species go extinct (Figure below).

Recently, cargo ships have transported zebra mussels, spiny waterfleas, and ruffe (a freshwater fish) into the Great Lakes (Figure below). These invasive species are better at hunting for food. They have caused some of the native species to go extinct.

Invasive species can disrupt food chains, carry disease, prey on native species directly, and out-compete native species for limited resources, like food. All of these effects can lead to extinction of the native species.

An exotic species, the brown tree snake, hitchhiked on an aircraft to the Pacific Islands, causing the extinctions of many bird and mammal species which had evolved in the absence of predators.

These zebra mussels, an invasive species, live on most man-made and natural surfaces. Here they have infested the walls of the Arthur V. Ormond Lock on the Arkansas River. They have caused significant damage to American waterways, locks, and power plants.

Other Causes

Other causes of habitat destruction include poor fire management, overfishing, mining (Figure below), pollution, and storm damage. All of these can cause irreversible changes to a habitat and ecosystem.

Strip coal mining, pictured here, has destroyed the entire ecosystem.

Examples of Habitat Destruction

A habitat that is quickly being destroyed is the wetland. By the 1980s, over 80% of all wetlands in parts of the U.S. were destroyed. In Europe, many wetland species have gone extinct. For example, many bogs in Scotland have been lost because of human development.

Another example of species loss due to habitat destruction happened on Madagascar’s central highland plateau. From 1970 to 2000, slash-and-burn agriculture destroyed about 10% of the country’s total native plants. The area turned into a wasteland. Soil from erosion entered the waterways. Much of the river ecosystems of several large rivers were also destroyed. Several fish species are almost extinct. Also, some coral reef formations in the Indian Ocean are completely lost.


  • bog: Wetland that accumulates peat, a deposit of dead plant material, often mosses; one of the four main types of wetlands.
  • desertification: Process by which fertile land is depleted of top soil and becomes a desert.
  • extinction: Complete disappearance of a species.
  • habitat: Natural home or environment of an organism; the physical environment in which a species lives.
  • invasive species: Exotic, introduced species that out-competes the native species.
  • non-native species: Exotic species introduced into a new habitat.
  • slash-and-burn agriculture: Clearing of land for agriculture by cutting down and burning forest.
  • wetland: Land area that is saturated with water, either permanently or seasonally, with the characteristics of a distinct ecosystem.


  • There are many causes of habitat destruction, including clearing of land and introduction of invasive species.
  • Slash-and-burn agriculture can lead to desertification, meaning the fertile top soil is lost.


Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. How does the loss of trees along streams affect steam ecosystems? How are aquatic plants affected? How does this situation alter the food web in streams?
  2. Loss of trees has destabilized some stream banks. How are aquatic insects affected by this situation? What has this done for water clarity? How may this affect photosynthesis in streams? How does this situation affect food webs in streams?
  3. How have urban areas affected the diversity of fish in streams? What types of fish are being selected for?
  1. What types of trees dominate boreal forests?
  2. How is climate change affecting the amount of fires occurring in Alaska? How is this affecting the ecosystem?
  3. How do conifer forests differ from deciduous forest in their effect on temperature? How may this feed into climate change?
  4. How may the thawing of permafrost affect the Global Carbon Cycle? How much carbon is locked up in permafrost? How is the carbon in the permafrost similar to the carbon in fossil fuel?
  5. How do current models of climate change account for the carbon in permafrost?


  1. What are the primary ways that humans destroy habitats?
  2. Describe slash-and-burn agriculture.

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