Complex Trophic Interactions in Kelp Forest Ecosystems
The distributions and abundances of species and populations change almost continuously. Understanding the processes responsible is perhaps ecology’s most fundamental challenge. Kelp-forest ecosystems in southwest Alaska have undergone several phase shifts between alga- and herbivore-dominated states in recent decades. Overhunting and recovery of sea otters caused the earlier shifts. Studies focusing on these changes demonstrate the importance of top-down forcing processes, a variety of indirect food-web interactions associated with the otter-urchin-kelp trophic cascade, and the role of food-chain length in the coevolution of defense and resistance in plants and their herbivores. This system unexpectedly shifted back to an herbivore-dominated state during the 1990s, because of a sea-otter population collapse that apparently was driven by increased predation by killer whales. Reasons for this change remain uncertain but seem to be linked to the whole-sale collapse of marine mammals in the North Pacific Ocean and southern Bering Sea. We hypothesize that killer whales sequentially "fished down" pinniped and sea-otter populations after their earlier prey, the great whales, were decimated by commercial whaling. The dynamics of kelp forests in southwest Alaska thus appears to have been influenced by an ecological chain reaction that encompassed numerous species and large scales of space and time.
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Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: May 1, 2004
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