the destruction of Yellowstone

Yellowstone national park was devoid of the grey wolf from around 1920 to 1995. The wolves were misunderstood and driven to extinction. Scientists re-introduced the wolf to Yellowstone in 1995 (41 wolves, to be exact) in the hope of seeing some change in the ecosystem, as well as letting the wolf come back to one of its natural habits. The wolves changed the ecosystem at such a crazy scale that its effects are still being felt and understood.

Photo by Lucas Gao / Unsplash

With the extinction of the wolf in Yellowstone, an apex predator, the elk started to thrive. Their population grew unabated, which resulted in them over-grazing. They started consuming more water, and the entire habitat started to shift towards imbalance. Grazing too much meant a huge reduction of shrubs and foliage. Which in turn meant smaller animals had lesser shelter from their predators - rabbit population, for example, started to fall. The streams and river changed course, beaver population fell, trees grew lesser, and the entire habitat became unstable.

enter the wolf

41 wolves were introduced in 1995, back to Yellowstone. Within the next 2 decades, amazing changes have happened. With the presence of an apex predator, elk population is kept in check (and it modified their behaviour as well). This meant

  • more foliage and shrubs, meaning smaller animals were able to survive better.
  • with the willow able to thrive, beaver populations were back and there were more beaver dams. Which leads to its own cascade of amazing effects - even out the seasonal pulses of runoff, improve the water table, and allow bird populations to thrive.
  • there was more food for scavengers, from the elk killed by the wolves.
  • and so much more of the snowball effect.

What does this mean for anything, and why am I writing about wolves?

They are a keystone species. They are capable of bringing about balance into an ecosystem through far-reaching consequences than merely the one or two steps that we can compute. From a better balance of resources to improved vegetation, to even changing the course of the rivers - a keystone species can literally change the ecosystem.

the keystone habit

Like the wolf, there are certain habits that have far-reaching consequences in our lives. In Charles Duhigg's wonderful book, The Power of Habit, he talks about these as keystone habits. These habits cascade into the rest of our lives, well beyond what we compute as the output.

Lady running in a park in London
Photo by Arek Adeoye / Unsplash

Regular activity or exercise is one such keystone habit. When we start to exercise, what happens is

  • we start to eat better. We want to eat better. The amount of junk automatically goes down because we like the feeling of feeling good.
  • we start to sleep better. As our hormonal system starts to work better, and we exert ourselves through regular exercise, sleep becomes more natural.
  • our mental alertness improves. As little as 30 minutes of exercise a day has shown remarkable improvements in cognition and work productivity.
  • our mood improves.
  • our gut health starts to recover, as our eating and sleeping patterns are improving. This leads to a whole other cascade of health benefits.

All of this from just starting a fitness routine. This is why it is critical that we find something, anything that we can enjoy. Rather than the most intense workout there is that will burn all the fat along with the rest of your face off. The point is not the intense workout at all. The point is the habit. The point is the mental recalibration of how you think about yourself. The point is the cascade of routines this is going to start.

Humble beginnings and slow work will always out-perform whatever crazy routine you do for 8 weeks. Because you improve sustainably, you have fun doing it, you take small steps which are easy to keep moving forward, and you allow the keystone habit to do its thing.

For me, fitness was the keystone habit. I started off with

  1. month of yoga
  2. moved on to running, even though I sucked at it
  3. running 21k became possible
  4. and then I moved on to CrossFit
  5. and only after about 6 months of this did I even start to focus on eating better
  6. and by the time I moved to real strength training, I had figured out nutrition as well and everything was just snowballing. My strength levels were going up, my body composition improved, and I felt healthier than I had ever felt.

Your turn

You need to find your keystone habit. From what I've seen over the last 9 years, regular exercise seems to apply to almost all of us. The only times it fails is when we try to do too much. If training 3 days a week is recommended, then I will do 7. That just leads to a burnout.

Photo by Thomas Bonometti / Unsplash

If 41 wolves could restore Yellowstone over a decade, then maybe we should throw in 500 wolves to do it in a year - that logic makes no sense, right? The wolves would've killed a lot more elk, and then eventually died out themselves probably.

So, find your keystone habit. Give it time. See the cascade. Don't just measure the outcome in that one sliver, but measure it holistically.

Everything will fall in place. Trust me.

Find your wolf!