The short film opens with two questions: “So what determines how many species live in a given place? Or how many individuals of the species can live somewhere?”
The research that provided answers to these questions was set in motion by key experiments by ecologists Robert Paine and James Estes. Robert Paine’s starfish exclusion experiments on the coast of Washington state showed that removing starfish from this marine ecosystem has a big impact on the population sizes of other species, establishing the starfish as a keystone species. James Estes and colleague John Palmisano discovered that the kelp forest ecosystems of the North Pacific are regulated by the presence or absence of sea otters, which feed on sea urchins that consume kelp. These direct and indirect effects of sea otters on other species describe a trophic cascade. These early studies were the inspiration for hundreds of investigations on other keystone species and trophic cascades, as well as ongoing studies into the regulation of population sizes and species numbers.