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Trophic Cascade

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Last updated date: 24th Jul 2024
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What is the Trophic Cascade?

When a trophic level in a food web is disrupted, trophic cascades are strong indirect interactions that can influence entire ecosystems. For instance, if predators are good enough to be at predation to decrease the availability or alter the behaviour of their prey, a top-down cascade might occur, freeing the very next lower trophic stage against exploitation/predation. Let us take a closer look at the Cascade definition biology.

The trophic cascade definition biology is a phenomenon in ecology that has sparked new studies in different fields. It's crucial, for instance, to comprehend the consequences of eliminating top predators from food chains, as humans have accomplished in far too many places by hunting and fishing.

Trophic cascade meaning in which the highest consumer/predator dominates the primary consumer population is known as a top-down cascade. As a result, the population of primary producers grows. The elimination of the top predator will change the dynamics of the food web. The primary consumers will overcrowd and manipulate the primary producers in this scenario.

Competition and exploitation at higher trophic levels are essential for top-down food web safety. Invasive species can disrupt the food chain by eliminating or replacing top predators. Such relationships do not have to be negative all of the time. Some invasive species also started to change cascade meaning, according to research, and so as a result, habitat destruction has indeed been restored.

For instance, if the number of large piscivorous fish in a lake increases, the number of smaller fish that consume zooplankton would reduce. As a consequence of rising in zooplankton, the biomass of its prey, phytoplankton, should decrease.

Species communities at a single trophic stage could be replaced by outside food in a subsidy cascade. Native animals, for instance, may consume resources that do not exist with their same ecosystem, including livestock eaten by native predators. This can raise their local abundances, triggering an ecological cascade trophic meaning that affects several organisms in the ecosystem. Luskin et al. (2017) discovered that native animals residing in Malaysia's secure primary rainforest find food subsidies in nearby oil palm plantations. Such subsidy increased the population of the native animals, resulting in powerful secondary ‘cascading' impacts upon the forest tree ecosystem.

Across 24 years of study, crop-raiding wild boar (Sus scrofa) constructed thousands of nests through forest understory vegetation, resulting in a 62 per cent decrease in forest tree sapling capacity. Cross-border subsidy cascades like that might be common in both terrestrial and marine environments, posing major conservation problems.

Origin and Theory

Depending on his reports of deer overgrazing mountain slopes following human-wolf extinction, Aldo Leopold is commonly acclaimed as being the first one to describe the process of a trophic cascade. While they did not use the trophic meaning, Frederick E. Smith, Nelson Hairston, and Lawrence B. Slobodkin are widely credited for bringing the idea into scientific discourse. Predators, according to Smith, Hairston, and Slobodkin, decrease the density of herbivores, enabling plants to thrive. The green planet hypothesis is a popular term for this. The importance of top-down factors (such as predation) and indirect effects in shaping ecological ecosystems is attributed to the green world hypothesis.

Previous to Hairston, Smith, and Slobodkin, the dominant view of societies became trophodynamics, which sought to understand community structure solely by bottom-up forces (e.g. resource limitation). Smith might've been influenced by the studies of Hrbáek, a Czech ecologist whom he encountered on a cultural exchange with the US State Department. Fish in artificial ponds decreased the abundance of zooplankton, resulting in a rise in phytoplankton abundance, according to Hrbáek.

Hairston, Smith, and Slobodkin argued that ecological communities functioned as three-tiered food chains. Following models extended the case to include food chains including three or more trophic stages.

The top trophic level within a food chain, according to Lauri Oksanen, raises the number of producers in food chains with such an odd number of trophic levels while decreasing the number of producers in food chains for an even number of trophic levels. He also said that the number of trophic levels in a food chain rises as the ecosystem's productivity grows.


While Hairston, Smith, and Slobodkin presented their case in terms of terrestrial food chains, the first empirical evidence of trophic cascades originated from marine and, in particular, aquatic 

ecosystems. The following are amongst the most well-known examples:

  • Piscivorous fish might drastically decrease zooplanktivorous fish populations in North American lakes; zooplanktivorous fish may significantly change freshwater zooplankton habitats, and zooplankton grazing could have a significant effect on communities of phytoplankton. By enabling phytoplankton to thrive, piscivorous fish might change the colour of lake water from transparent to green.

  • Fish (steelhead and roach) take in predatory insects and fish larvae in the Eel River in Northern California. Midge larvae, that rely on algae, are preyed upon by such smaller predators. The elimination of the larger fish raises the number of algae in the area.

  • Marine otters eat sea urchins in Pacific kelp forests. Sea urchins thrive in areas whereby sea otters have been driven to extinction, while kelp populations decline.

  • The reintroduction of grey wolves (Canis lupus) to Yellowstone National Park, which decreased the quantity of elk  (Cervus Canadensis) and modified their behaviour, is a textbook example of a terrestrial trophic cascade. As a result, many plant species were freed from grazing pressure, resulting in the transformation of riparian habitats. The viral clip of a video "How Wolves Change Rivers" vividly depicts and explains this illustration of a trophic cascade.

Terrestrial Trophic Cascades

The reality that the earliest known trophic cascades all happened in lakes and streams allowed one scientist to believe that trophic cascades were largely an aquatic process due to fundamental variations between aquatic and terrestrial food webs. Trophic cascades are limited to ecosystems containing limited species diversity, where a few dominant species could exert dominance and the food web might function as a linear food chain. Furthermore, just at the time, possibly the best trophic cascades all existed in food chains including algae as the primary producer. Trophic cascades, according to Strong, could only happen in populations with quickly growing producers who lack herbivory defences.

Several trophic cascades have been discovered in terrestrial examples as a result of subsequent studies, including:

  • Yellow bush lupines are eaten by an especially destructive herbivore in Northern California's coastal prairie: the ghost moth's root-boring caterpillar. Entomopathogenic nematodes consume caterpillars and therefore can help lupines survive and reproduce more seeds.

  • A Clerid beetle specialises in consuming ants in the Costa Rican rain forest. The ant Pheidole bicornis does have a mutualistic relationship with Piper plants, living on the Piper and removing caterpillars as well as other insect herbivores. Through lowering the number of ants, the Clerid beetle increases the amount of leaf area eaten by insect herbivores on Piper plants.

FAQs on Trophic Cascade

1. Name the Highest Trophic Level Animals.

Ans. Apex predators are at the top of the food chain.

2. What Factors Increase the Likelihood of a Trophic Cascade?

Ans. When predators restrict the density and/or action of their prey, the trophic cascade concept occurs, enhancing the survival of the next lower trophic stage.