Cascade effect (ecology)

An ecological cascade effect is a series of secondary extinctions that is triggered by the primary extinction of a key species in an ecosystem. Secondary extinctions are likely to occur when the threatened species are: dependent on a few specific food sources, mutualistic (dependent on the key species in some way), or forced to coexist with an invasive species that is introduced to the ecosystem. Species introductions to a foreign ecosystem can often devastate entire communities, and even entire ecosystems. These exotic species monopolize the ecosystem's resources, and since they have no natural predators to decrease their growth, they are able to increase indefinitely. Olsen et al.[1] showed that exotic species have caused lake and estuary ecosystems to go through cascade effects due to loss of algae, crayfish, mollusks, fish, amphibians, and birds. However, the principal cause of cascade effects is the loss of top predators as the key species. As a result of this loss, a dramatic increase (ecological release) of prey species occurs. The prey is then able to overexploit its own food resources, until the population numbers decrease in abundance, which can lead to extinction. When the prey's food resources disappear, they starve and may go extinct as well. If the prey species is herbivorous, then their initial release and exploitation of the plants may result in a loss of plant biodiversity in the area.[2] If other organisms in the ecosystem also depend upon these plants as food resources, then these species may go extinct as well. An example of the cascade effect caused by the loss of a top predator is apparent in tropical forests. When hunters cause local extinctions of top predators, the predators' prey's population numbers increase, causing an overexploitation of a food resource and a cascade effect of species loss.[3] Recent studies have been performed on approaches to mitigate extinction cascades in food-web networks.[4]

Current example

One example of the cascade effect caused by the loss of a top predator has to do with sea otters (Enhydra lutris). Starting before the 17th century and not phased out until 1911 when an international treaty was signed to prevent their further exploitation, sea otters were hunted aggressively for their pelts, which caused a cascade effect through the kelp forest ecosystems along the Pacific Coast of North America.[5] One of the sea otters' primary food sources is the sea urchin (Class: Echinoidea). When hunters caused sea otter populations to decline, an ecological release of sea urchin populations occurred. The sea urchins then overexploited their main food source, kelp, creating urchin barrens where no life exists. No longer having food to eat, the sea urchins populations became locally extinct as well. Also, since kelp forest ecosystems are homes to many other species, the loss of the kelp ultimately caused their extinction as well.[6] In conclusion, the loss of sea otters in local areas along the Pacific coast seems to have caused a cascade effect of secondary extinctions, continuing into the present day.

See also


  1. ^ Olsen, T.M. D.M. Lodge, G.M. Capelli, and R.J. Houlihan. 1991. studied the impact of an introduced crayfish species (Orchantes rusticus)on littoral congener, snails, and macrophytes. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 48:1853-1861
  2. ^ Leigh, E.G., S.J. Wright, E.A. Herre, and F.E. Putz. 1993. The decline of tree diversity on newly isolated tropical islands: A test of a null hypothesis and the implications. Evol. Ecol. 7:76-102.
  3. ^ Dirzo, R. and A. Miranda. 1991. Altered patterns of herbivory and diversity in the forest understory: A case study of the possible defaunation. In P.W. Price, T.M. Liwinsohn, G.W. Fernandes, and W.W. Benson (eds.), Plant-animal Interactions: Evolutionary Ecology in Tropical and Temperate Regions, pp. 273-287. Wiley, NY.
  4. ^ Sahasrabudhe, S., and A.E. Motter, 2011. Rescuing ecosystems from extinction cascades through compensatory perturbations. Nature Communications 2, 170.
  5. ^ Estes, J.A., D.O. Duggins, and G.B. Rathbun. 1989. The ecology of extinctions in kelp forest communities. Conservation Biology 3:251-264
  6. ^ Dayton, P.K., M.J. Tegner, P.B. Edwards, and K.L. Riser. 1998. Sliding baselines, ghosts, and reduced expectations in kelp forest communities. Ecol. Appl.8:309-322
List of effects

This is a list of names for observable phenomena that contain the word effect, amplified by reference(s) to their respective fields of study.

Trophic cascade

Trophic cascades are powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems, occurring when a trophic level in a food web is suppressed. For example, a top-down cascade will occur if predators are effective enough in predation to reduce the abundance, or alter the behavior, of their prey, thereby releasing the next lower trophic level from predation (or herbivory if the intermediate trophic level is a herbivore).

The trophic cascade is an ecological concept which has stimulated new research in many areas of ecology. For example, it can be important for understanding the knock-on effects of removing top predators from food webs, as humans have done in many places through hunting and fishing.

A top-down cascade is a trophic cascade where the top consumer/predator controls the primary consumer population. In turn, the primary producer population thrives. The removal of the top predator can alter the food web dynamics. In this case, the primary consumers would overpopulate and exploit the primary producers. Eventually there would not be enough primary producers to sustain the consumer population. Top-down food web stability depends on competition and predation in the higher trophic levels. Invasive species can also alter this cascade by removing or becoming a top predator. This interaction may not always be negative. Studies have shown that certain invasive species have begun to shift cascades; and as a consequence, ecosystem degradation has been repaired.For example, if the abundance of large piscivorous fish is increased in a lake, the abundance of their prey, smaller fish that eat zooplankton, should decrease. The resulting increase in zooplankton should, in turn, cause the biomass of its prey, phytoplankton, to decrease.

In a bottom-up cascade, the population of primary producers will always control the increase/decrease of the energy in the higher trophic levels. Primary producers are plants, phytoplankton and zooplankton that require photosynthesis. Although light is important, primary producer populations are altered by the amount of nutrients in the system. This food web relies on the availability and limitation of resources. All populations will experience growth if there is initially a large amount of nutrients.In a subsidy cascade, species populations at one trophic level can be supplemented by external food. For example, native animals can forage on resources that don't originate in their same habitat, such a native predators eating livestock. This may increase their local abundances thereby affecting other species in the ecosystem and causing an ecological cascade. For example, Luskin et al (2017) found that native animals living in protected primary rainforest in Malaysia found food subsidies in neighboring oil palm plantations. This subsidy allowed native animal populations to increase, which then triggered powerful secondary ‘cascading’ effects on forest tree community. Specifically, crop-raiding wild boar (Sus scofa) built thousands of nests from the forest understory vegetation and this caused a 62% decline in forest tree sapling density over a 24-year study period. Such cross-boundary subsidy cascades may be widespread in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems and present significant conservation challenges.

These trophic interactions shape patterns of biodiversity globally. Humans and climate change have affected these cascades drastically. One example can be seen with sea otters (Enhydra lutris) on the Pacific coast of the United States of America. Over time, human interactions caused a removal of sea otters. One of their main prey, the pacific purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) eventually began to overpopulate. The overpopulation caused increased predation of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera). As a result, there was extreme deterioration of the kelp forests along the California coast. This is why it is important for countries to regulate marine and terrestrial ecosystems.Predator-induced interactions could heavily influence the flux of atmospheric carbon if managed on a global scale. For example, a study was conducted to determine the cost of potential stored carbon in living kelp biomass in Sea Otter enhanced ecosystems. The study valued the potential storage between $205 million and $408 million dollars (US) on the European Carbon Exchange (2012).

Aquatic ecosystems
Food webs
Example webs
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components

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