The top-down vs bottom-up approach in an ecosystem

The populations of different species in an ecosystem is an important parameter of that ecosystem. It determines how long the ecosystem can survive, how stable it can remain in times of environmental stresses and how many different species it can support within it.

If the population becomes too much, then the ecosystem will collapse as there will be too many organisms to support on too few resources (kind of what humans are heading towards). On the other hand, if the population of any one organism falls drastically, it leaves a void in the ecosystem’s processes and chain of energy transfers. If that organism was an important one in that ecosystem, the entire ecosystem will collapse.

Therefore, the population of different organisms cannot simply be left to drift around on its own. For a stable and diversified ecosystem, the system itself needs to come up with ways to control the populations of all its species and make sure it remains in the most suitable range.

The top-down approach

One of the mechanisms that nature has devised is the top-down control. The “top-down”, refers to the ecological pyramid.

In the top down approach, the population of the organisms at the bottom of the pyramid are controlled by the organisms at the top.

For instance…

Imagine a simplified ecosystem where there are plants, deer and tigers. The plants are the producers, the deer are the herbivores and the tigers are the top carnivores. The presence of tigers keep the deer population in check. If there were no tigers in this ecosystem, then the deer population would flourish to no end. Because of that, the plants would all be eaten. This would lead to a situation where almost all the plants are eaten by the huge, unsustainable population of deer and there is no food left for the deer. And so, that population of deer would eventually starve to death and the ecosystem would collapse.

Tigers eat the deer and make sure that their population is not too high, so that the plants are not overeaten and the ecosystem will continue to function.

top-down
The presence of predators keeps the herbivores in check, in turn ensuring that the producers are not over exploited.

This approach is also called the predator-controlled food web of an ecosystem.

 

The bottom-up approach

The bottom-up approach is driven by the presence or absence of the producers in the ecosystem. Changes in their population will affect the population of all the species in the food web, and thus, the ecosystem.

Again, for instance…

In the same simplified example, let us consider the reverse scenario. What if the population of plants in the ecosystem dwindled to extremely low numbers? Then, the deer would have less food to feed on. Consequently, their population numbers would fall to reflect the lack of food resources. When the population of deer decreases, the tigers will also automatically face a shortage of food. And their population would also fall. If plants disappeared altogether, then the ecosystem would collapse.

bottom-up
Here, lack of food has caused a decrease in the populations of higher trophic levels.

This approach is also called the resource-controlled (or food-limited) food web of an ecosystem.

This approach comes with it’s own complications. It isn’t just the absence of food that can cause a collapse in the bottom-up approach, but also the inaccessibility to food through competition. If, for example, there was plenty of food available for the deer, but a competing population of blackbucks turned up. Now, there are two populations vying for the same food resource, making this a food-limited ecosystem. The over-exploitation of plants in the region would eventually result in the removal of both, or one of either the deer or the blackbuck in the area.

Does an ecosystem have to choose an approach?

No. In most ecosystems, studies have shown that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. For example, in marine ecosystems that were initially thought to be purely bottom-up, there have been periods of top-down control due to extraction of large predators through fishing.

It seems like the decision of which approach to use depends primarily on the limiting factor; ie. which of the two, the predator or producer, is present in lesser numbers (or biomass). And that makes sense. Purely depending on one approach will make the ecosystem highly susceptible to destabilization if the driver of that approach goes missing.

In reality, it’s not that simple…which makes it all the more successful!

In reality, there are many more carnivores, herbivores and producers in an ecosystem. This adds a great degree of complexity into this approach, which is the reason for it’s success. More the number of predators or top consumers in an ecosystem, greater is the control established on the herbivores in case of the top-down approachThe same will be true for the bottom-up approach.

Nature does work magic, doesn’t it?


Further reading:

  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/114/8/1952
  2. http://trophiccascades.forestry.oregonstate.edu/sites/trophic/files/Kay%2C%201998.pdf
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