A food chain is a linear network of species having up to four to five levels starting from the producer organism and ending with the apex predator. A level of the food chain represents the trophic level. The trophic level is the level that is occupied by a species in the food chain. The food chain is different from the food web, as the food chain follows a simple and straight pathway pointing at a single animal rather than a group of different animals seen in the food web. The consumers of the food chain are classified as primary consumers, secondary, and tertiary consumers. Secondary consumers (trophic level 3) are the carnivorous/omnivorous species that prey on the primary consumers (trophic level 2) such as the herbivores. Tertiary consumers are also known as the apex predators (trophic levels 4 and 5) that are present at the top of the food chain. Primary producers (trophic level 1) are the plants that synthesize their food. If one of the species in the trophic level is altered in their numbers, then this will create a trophic cascade which will affect another level of the food chain. This trophic cascade results in ecological imbalance. The term â€œtrophic cascadeâ€ was first coined by the ecologist Robert T. Paine in the 1980s. Trophic cascades are usually seen if the keystone species are removed from the food chain, which plays an important role in maintaining the ecosystem. For example, the reintroduction of gray wolves at Yellowstone National park reduced the number of elks, which relieved the plants from grazing pressure, finally leading to the formation of riparian ecosystems.
Types of the Trophic Cascade:
There are three types of a trophic cascade, which are as follows:
1. Top-Down Cascade: This cascade takes place when the top consumer or top predator controls the population of the primary consumer. The removal of the top predator affects food web dynamics. If top predators are affected, then the primary consumers will thrive and overpopulate, which will lead to overexploitation of primary producers. Hence, there will not be enough producers to feed the consumer population. This limit in the producer population will create competition between the consumer population and some will starve to death. The stability of the top-down cascade is dependent on competition and predation in higher trophic levels. Some invasive species can replace the apex predator and trigger the cascade, but this interaction may not necessarily be negative. An example of this cascade would be the abundance of piscivorous fish in a lake. The smaller fish that eats zooplankton, which is the prey of piscivorous fishes, will decline in number. Accordingly, the phytoplankton, which are the prey for zooplankton, will decrease leading to an imbalance in the food chain ecosystem.
2. Bottom-Up Cascade: The increase or decrease in the energy of the higher trophic levels is always controlled by the population of the primary producers. Plants and phytoplankton are the primary producers that require photosynthesis. Light is used by the primary producers and the nutrients are also important and the food web highly relies on the limitation and availability of these nutrient resources. Populations of all trophic levels will be affected if there is an imbalance in the initial nutrient availability in the ecosystem.
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