How the "Trickle-Down Theory" Applies to Ecology

Quick, what's the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the phrase "trickle-down theory"? Economics, right? This common word association is not so for The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The Foundation recently announced $3.1 million in funding to a team of scientists who will study the trickle down effects of food chains within marine ecosystems. Who knew that the trickle-down effect doesn't refer solely to supply-side economics anymore? One thing that does remain the same, however, are the negative connotations. (See Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Grants for Marine and River Conservation).

The study will take place at the University of Southern California, Santa Barbara, at the school's national Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). The premise of the study is your basic "the-arm-bone-connected-to-the-leg-bone" theory. The short explanation given in the funding announcement went something like this: Otters eat urchins, preventing an overpopulation of urchins. Urchins eat kelp, preventing an overabundance of kelp. If the otters, which eat the urchins that munch on the kelp, were driven to extinction, the resulting trickle-down effect would be an overpopulation of urchins and a depleting supply of kelp. Since urchins are not the only marine creatures on a kelp diet, it would be safe to assume that in this scenario, all of those creatures would be affected as well.

One of the main purposes of the study is to determine how much change marine ecosystems can withstand before they face depletion or worse, extinction. These UCSB scientists will also be looking at how human activity and climate change effect marine life. The study aims to find early prediction and prevention measures that can help to avoid the ruin of these delicate marine ecosystems.

No official announcement has been made as to when the study will begin, only that it will be conducted in two phases. In phase one, the scientists will study existing data. In phase two, they will gather their own data through deep-sea dives and working with marine managers around the country.

Though the nation's coastlines seem abundant at 95,471 miles, our coastlines are just as scarce a natural resource as trees. The major difference? You can't replant the ocean.