7 Examples of Trophic Cascade Globally, Causes

Certain behavioral actions occur in the tropics that are beyond a layman’s understanding.

An increase (or reduction) in carnivores in a three-level food chain results in an equal (or opposite) rise (or drop) in herbivores and primary producers like plants and phytoplankton.

For instance, the eradication of wolves (Canis lupus) in eastern North America has been linked to an increase in white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and a decrease in the vegetation the deer eat is one the examples of trophic cascade.

The phrase “trophic cascade” was first introduced by American zoologist Robert Paine in 1980 to explain reciprocal alterations in food webs brought on by the experimental manipulation of top predators.

Others used the word to characterize changes in aquatic ecosystems that occurred in the 1980s due to things like overfishing or abrupt increases in predatory fish populations as a result of stocking.

A predator eats its prey. Predators can affect prey behavior and abundance in this way (e.g., prey get scared when predators are around and hide or move away).

Ecologists refer to this relationship as feeding, or trophic, cascade when a predator’s effects on its prey’s ecology trickle down to affect the density and/or behavior of the prey’s prey at a lower feeding level.

In this scenario, predators indirectly gain and enhance the abundance of their prey’s prey by manipulating the densities and/or behaviors of their prey.

Trophic cascades are required to happen over a minimum of three feeding levels by definition.

Although evidence of 4- and 5-level trophic cascades have been found in nature, they are much less common than the way they most frequently occur.

What is a Trophic Cascade?

A trophic cascade is an ecological phenomenon that occurs when top predators are added or removed from a food chain.

It involves reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predators and prey along the food chain and frequently leads to significant changes in ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling.

These strong indirect connections can regulate entire ecosystems. They occur when predators control the quantity and behavior of their prey, improving the chances of the next lower trophic level’s survival.

Trophic cascades are a result of predators’ actions on prey and they spread down the food chain. They lead to inverted patterns of biomass and abundance within trophic levels.

Researchers have argued about the locations and relative strengths of trophic cascades, which may be constrained by complex interactions within food webs.

However, trophic cascades are frequently seen in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats.

The trophic cascades can change the condition of a system and have an impact on a variety of activities, such as cross-habitat interactions, biogeochemical cycles, and ecosystem services.

Important conservation goals include restoring predators and the trophic cascades that follow. These goals can help to maintain biodiversity.

Trophic Cascade Diagram

Source: [PDF] Trophic cascades result in large-scale coralline algae loss through differential grazer effects – JSTOR 

Food webs (left) and trophic cascade diagrams (right): A) Example of a typical trophic cascade, B) Trophic cascade found at I. mirini enclosure treatment. Bold arrows indicate the effect of the trophic cascade; + and – symbols indicate an increase or reduction in density, respectively; OM-organic matter; A-algae.

Examples of Trophic Cascade

Tropic cascades occur both in the terrestrial environment and the aquatic environment.

1. Trophic Cascades in Terrestrial Ecosystems

Trophic cascades that are terrestrial, or land-based, happen everywhere in the world.

The great majority of modern trophic cascades are the product of human activity.

Activists have occasionally intervened to mitigate the effects once they were realized.

  • The Wolves of Yellowstone
  • Tropics Rainforests
  • Mountain Forests
  • Malaysian Subsidy Cascade

1. The Wolves of Yellowstone

Source: Trophic cascade in Yellowstone National Park – AccessScience from McGraw-Hill Education

Gray wolves found refuge in the region that would one day become Yellowstone National Park in the late 1800s. Wolf groups roamed the area as the dominant predator.

However, wolves were driven to extinction in the region by people; by the 1920s, wolves had vanished from the park.

A wolf-free environment was seen as ideal for around ten years. Concerns were then voiced as the elk population expanded.

Elk were no longer required to relocate from one site to another to avoid predators as their herd grew.

Elk were decimating trees and other plants as a result, which reduced ground cover and food for other species.

Ground erosion was also a result of the loss of vegetation along streams. Wetlands with aspen and willow-beaver trees were vanishing.

Coyotes surged in the population at the same period as wolves, or “apex predators,” disappeared.

Pronghorn deer are frequently preyed upon by coyotes, which led to a decline in their population.

Biologists decided to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone in response to this ecological hazard. ‘

Eight wolves were transported in 1995 from Canada’s Jasper National Park in Alberta.

Although it took the wolves some time to become used to their new surroundings, the outcomes were amazing.

Along with several species, including the beaver, which was on the verge of extinction, plant life has been reintroduced.

The number of pronghorn deer has increased while the coyote population has decreased.

However, there is a potential drawback: more elk are being killed by the wolves than expected, raising questions about the long-term effects of wolf reintroduction.

2. Tropics Rainforests

Trophic cascades are frequent because tropical rainforests have experienced years of severe environmental stress.

However, it isn’t always evident when a cascade has happened. Researchers contrast damaged ecosystems with intact ecosystems to see if a cascade is happening.

To actively hunt for trophic cascade in 2001, a researcher by the name of John Terborgh took use of a man-made disruption to rainforest habitats.

His study area had been divided into a set of islands in the rainforest and an undisturbed marsh.

Terborgh found that the absence of predators resulted in an excess of seed and plant eaters and a dearth of young seedlings and canopy-forming plants.

The predatory islands, meanwhile, saw typical vegetative growth.

This finding contributed to the understanding of the significance of apex predators in ecosystems and gave scientists the means to identify trophic cascades even in situations where it might not be immediately apparent.

3. Mountain Forests

Trembling aspen forests (Populus tremuloides) have lost a significant amount of their spatial extent since the 1920s, and the age distribution of the remaining trees has shifted toward older individuals, indicating widespread recruitment failure of this important habitat-forming species in the mountain forests of the western US.

The disappearance of grey wolves (Canus lupus) from Yellowstone National Park in the 1880s to the 1920s and the ensuing rise in browsing pressure on aspen suckers—the clonal offspring that maintain aspen stands—exerted by herds of elk (Cervus elaphus) are causally related to the decline of aspen.

Grey wolves have been returned to this area over the past ten years, giving scientists the chance to investigate the mechanisms underlying the apparent trophic cascade that controls tree dynamics in these mountainous terrains.

A recent study suggested that elk avoid “risky” areas with high densities of grey wolves and spend more time in alternative habitats where wolf densities are lower, relaxing local browsing pressure on aspen suckers in high-risk foraging areas.

This was done by tracking the elk’s movements using GPS devices.

These results indicate the existence of a behaviorally-mediated trophic cascade in which grey wolves have an indirect positive impact on aspen survivorship and growth by altering the foraging patterns of elk grazers, even though the idea of a wolf-led trophic cascade is controversial and has recently been challenged.

To resolve these links in the food web, more study is necessary.

Proposed trophic cascade in Yellowstone National Park. Wolves (A) by affecting both the behavior and the densities of elk (B) indirectly increase the success of the elk’s preferred prey, aspen saplings (c), dramatically affecting the structure of plant communities over large spatial scales.

4. Malaysian Subsidy Cascade

Not all cascades of subsidies are the result of human action.

The supplement occasionally comes from a different nearby environment, but it frequently comes from farms, plantations, or even suburban gardens.

For instance, predators may target cows rather than difficult-to-find wild prey, while herbivores may consume plants in a farmer’s field.

Researchers looked at a scenario in which protected wildlife in Malaysia was foraging from a nearby palm plantation to learn more about subsidy cascades.

They found that eating the “fruits” of farmers’ labor, especially wild boar, had considerable detrimental ecological effects.

The wild boar’s propensity for crop-raiding increased by 100%, according to the study, which was based on data collected over 20 years.

This lured the boar out of the forest’s interior, where they usually make their nests out of vegetation in the understory to give birth to their young.

The growth of forest tree saplings decreased by 62%, resulting in smaller trees and less habitat for a variety of wildlife.

Trophic Cascades in Aquatic Ecosystems

Trophic cascades are similar to those seen on land in both freshwater and marine habitats.

The effects of removing creatures from their environments can cascade up and down the food chain, putting a lot of stress on that system.

The chemical composition of the water can be affected by changes to aquatic ecosystems, according to research.

  • Lakes
  • Kelp Beds
  • Marshes of salt

1. Lakes

Because of their tiny size and contained nature, lakes are particularly susceptible to trophic cascades.

The removal of top predators (bass and yellow perch) from freshwater lakes was the subject of experiments done around the end of the 20th century, which involved observing the outcomes.

Trophic cascades impacted the production of phytoplankton, a significant source of nutrition, as well as bacterial activity and the lake’s overall respiration.

2. Kelp Beds

Sea otters were frequently poached for their fur in Southeast Alaska.

In kelp beds near the Pacific coast, otters were, and in some places still are, the main predators. Invertebrate herbivores like sea urchins increased in population when otters all but vanished from kelp bed environments.

The end outcome is vast “urchin barrens” where the kelp itself no longer exists.

Unsurprisingly, research demonstrates that kelp bed ecosystems are healthier and more ecologically balanced in places where otters still exist.

3. Marshes of salt

The various ecosystems of salt marshes are heavily reliant on the producers at the base of the food chain.

Crab and snail activity regulates consumer behavior in salt marshes.

Snails, for instance, have been found to regulate the growth of marsh plants.

Snail populations soar and marsh vegetation is obliterated when the snail-eating blue crabs vanish from the ecosystem.

The result is that salt marshes turn into deserted mudflats.


If man is the major cause of trophic cascade then, we have to do something about it to minimize biodiversity loss.

Afforestation and reforestation amidst the current deforestation and more actions directed towards the conservation of natural resources would be needed.

7 Examples of Tropic Cascade Globally, Causes – FAQs

What does bottom-up traffic cascade mean?

The population of primary producers will always regulate the rise or fall of energy in the higher trophic levels in a bottom-up cascade. A disturbance in the equilibrium of primary producers in an ecosystem leads to the occurrence of a bottom-up trophic cascade.

The food for most of the trophic levels disappears when primary producers are eliminated from the food chain, which results in a decrease in both the number of primary consumers and those that eat the primary consumers.


Editor at EnvironmentGo! | providenceamaechi0@gmail.com | + posts

A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.

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