Although popularised by Crooks & Soulé (1999), Soulé et al. (1988) first gave us the term that described how entire ecosystems can become unbalanced by a reduction of a higher trophic-level predator exerting so-called ‘top-down’ control on the abundance of species occupying lower trophic levels.
The idea had theoretical support in ecology (Wright et al. 1994; Litvaitis & Villafuerte 1996), but it was not until Soulé and colleagues described how the decline of dominant predators combines with habitat fragmentation to release top-down pressure on smaller predators, thereby increasing predation rates on prey lower down the trophic web.
Crooks & Soulé (1999) described an example where the decline in coyotes (Canis latrans) in combination with urbanisation-driven habitat fragmentation led to an increase in cat (Felis catus) densities and the subsequent decline in scrub-breeding birds. More recent examples attest to the importance of the mesopredator release phenomenon: Myers et al. (2007) described how the decline in large coastal shark species has allowed mesopredator cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus) to increase, leading to a reduction in commercially important shellfish densities; and Johnson et al. (2007) showed how dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) in Australia suppress populations of exotic predators such as cats and foxes, leading to more locally abundant populations of native marsupials (see previous post).
Conservation biologists have benefited from this knowledge because we’ve realised that top-order predators affect far more than their immediate prey. These examples really hit home how a fully functional community is required for ecosystem stability, so we should strive to preserve complete complements of communities, not just our favourite species.