Many of us in the Pacific Northwest are familiar with the term “apex predator” from the relatively recent re-introduction of wolves into our forests. Apex predators are relatively small in number in comparison to the population of its prey, but its presence or lack of presence results in a disproportionate effect on the environment. That is, not just obviously on the population of its prey, but cascading effects that are often surprising.
The intent of the wolves’ re-introduction is beyond just merely the romantic notion of wolves once again roaming through the birch trees and howling in the distance. More so, the hope is to reinstate the natural regulation of the forest ecosystem that has gone somewhat out of whack due to cascading effects of the populations of the wolves’ prey going unchecked in a natural manner.
Anyway, the insight of the disproportionate and often surprising effect of apex predators is credited to the pioneering work of Robert Paine. He was a zoologist with the University of Washington who had this flash of inspiration for an experiment on biodiversity. The removal of a particular species can result in dramatic effects, whereas the removal of another particular species has little or no effect. He coined the term, keystone species, to describe the former.
That insight came to him during a little experiment he conducted off the Olympic Peninsula back in the 1960s. The tidal pools he visited were diverse in species. For some reason he wondered what would happen if he removed one of the species. I’m not sure if he started with starfish, but that’s the species he wrote about. It was probably the only species he could easily remove due to the relatively large size, easily seen bright colors, and relatively few number of them.
Believe it or not, that starfish (pisaster) posing with the Eternal Fishnu is an apex predator. Well, at least an apex predator of the tide pools around the Oregon Coast where these photos were taken – the prey being mussels. These starfish played a starring role (pun intended) in Robert Paine’s insights of the disproportionate effect the apex predator. He coined such a species, keystone species. And the sometimes surprising cascading effects resulting from the removal is referred to as trophic cascades.
A great example of trophic cascades are related to subsequent work he did with James Estes. A suprising trophic cascade starts with sea otters and ends with increased erosion of the U.S. West Coast:
Sea otters eat urchins which dine on the kelp of the kelp forests which act as a break of storm waves which mitigates erosion of the beach. In other words, the eradication of sea otters due to hunting means the urchins run wild, decimating the kelp forests, which leave the shore unprotected.
In the case of Robert Paine’s seminal experiment, he hunted down and flung all the starfish around his experimental tide pool into the sea. Unchecked by the apex predator, the experimental tide pool was bullied into a monoculture of mussels.
This wonderful short video, Some Animals are More Equal than Others: Keystone Species and Trophic Cascades, covers the groundbreaking work of Robert Paine and James Estes during the 1960s and 1970s.
Another video from The Royal Institution offers a very nice case study of tropic cascades, The Rules that Govern Life on Earth – with Sean B. Carroll.
Why did I stumble across this fascinating work of Robert Paine and James Estes? As with many things YouTube, one thing lead to another then another. But mostly, I was looking for inspiration, ideas, and paths towards how to author business models. As I’ve mentioned many times, I am a Business Intelligence Architect/Developer by day.
The set of correlations and transformations that make up trophic cascades are indeed the genes of a business model. Such mapped processes are what I’ve been working on with Map Rock for over a decade. An obvious business example is something like better quality leads to higher customer satisfaction, leading to return customers, leading to lower customer acquisition requirements, leading to higher profit. But for some reason, after all I’d studied, I didn’t know the term, trophic cascades.
A Buddhist thought before we leave. We must remember that Nature is resilient and that there isn’t only one “correct” way for things to be. For over three billion years Life on Earth has been periodically severely wounded. But she regenerates and comes back to full life.
Perhaps an additional disaster or a certain disaster a few years before or after, or more or less severe, more North or South, would have resulted in no humans at this time or even no multi-celled creatures. But from afar, seen as an entity in itself, She’ll still look more or less the same. Only from “within the weeds”, where our human minds are trained to exist, would things appear to be different.
Well, Mr. Pisaster, it was an honor to have met you!