Classic studies in kelp forest ecology have largely focused on trophic interactions (the relationships between organisms and their food webs), particularly the understanding and top-down trophic processes. Bottom-up processes are generally driven by the abiotic conditions required for primary producers to grow, such as availability of light and nutrients, and the subsequent transfer of energy to consumers at higher trophic levels. For example, the occurrence of kelp is frequently correlated with oceanographic upwelling zones, which provide unusually high concentrations of nutrients to the local environment. This allows kelp to grow and subsequently support herbivores, which in turn support consumers at higher trophic levels. By contrast, in top-down processes, predators limit the biomass of species at lower trophic levels through consumption. In the absence of predation, these lower level species flourish because resources that support their energetic requirements are non-limiting. In a well-studied example from Alaskan kelp forests, sea otters (Enhydra lutris) control populations of herbivorous sea urchins through predation. When sea otters are removed from the ecosystem (for example, by human exploitation), urchin populations are released from predatory control and grow dramatically. This leads to increased herbivore pressure on local kelp stands. Deterioration of the kelp itself results in the loss of physical ecosystem structure and subsequently, the loss of other species associated with this habitat. In Alaskan kelp forest ecosystems, sea otters are the keystone species that mediates this trophic cascade. In Southern California, kelp forests persist without sea otters and the control of herbivorous urchins is instead mediated by a suite of predators including lobsters and large fishes. The effect of removing one predatory species in this system differs from Alaska because there is redundancy in the trophic levels and other predatory species can continue to regulate urchins. However, the removal of multiple predators can effectively release urchins from predator pressure and allow the system to follow trajectories towards kelp forest degradation. Similar examples exist in Nova Scotia, South Africa, Australia and Chile. The relative importance of top-down versus bottom-up control in kelp forest ecosystems and the strengths of trophic interactions continue to be the subject of considerable scientific investigation.
The transition from macroalgal (i.e. kelp forest) to denuded landscapes dominated by sea urchins (or ‘urchin barrens’) is a widespread phenomenon, often resulting from trophic cascades like those described above; the two phases are regarded as alternative stable states of the ecosystem. The recovery of kelp forests from barren states has been documented following dramatic perturbations, such as urchin disease or large shifts in thermal conditions. Recovery from intermediate states of deterioration is less predictable and depends on a combination of abiotic factors and biotic interactions in each case.
Though urchins are usually the dominant herbivore, others with significant interaction strengths include seastars, isopods, kelp crabs, and herbivorous fishes. In many cases, these organisms feed on kelp that has been dislodged from substrate and drifts near the ocean floor rather than expend energy searching for intact thalli to feed on. When there is sufficient drift kelp, herbivorous grazers do not exert pressure on attached plants; when drift subsidies are unavailable, grazers directly impact the physical structure of the ecosystem. Many studies in Southern California have demonstrated that the availability of drift kelp specifically influences the foraging behavior of sea urchins. Drift kelp and kelp-derived particulate matter have also been important in subsidizing adjacent habitats, such as sandy beaches and the rocky intertidal.
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