The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters

Feb. 7, 2020

Dr. James A. Estes, PhD is a researcher, author, and professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For the past 50 years, he has been studying the ecology of coastal marine communities and keystone species. He has authored nearly 200 scientific publications with a primary focus on sea otters and their impact on surrounding sea life. He currently oversees research projects in the Aleutian Islands, central California, the Channel Islands, and New Zealand. 

In this interview, Dr. Estes describes the massive ecological shift that can be observed when reducing the numbers of a single critical species. He shares the moment he recognized the cascading effects resulting from diminished sea otter populations in the Aleutian Islands, which then spurred decades of research. He also discusses the effect humans have had on the balance of the Earth’s ecosystems with industries including the fur trade, whaling and agriculture. 

Here’s the outline of this interview with James Estes:

[00:00:25] Dr. Estes: background and interest in ecology.

[00:06:31] Bob Paine; Aleutian Islands.

[00:13:27] 1960 paper: Hairston, Nelson G., Frederick E. Smith, and Lawrence B. Slobodkin. "Community structure, population control, and competition." The american naturalist 94.879 (1960): 421-425.

[00:15:54] Book: Serendipity: An Ecologist's Quest to Understand Nature, by James A. Estes.

[00:16:24] Starfish experiments; The Serengeti Rules documentary on PBS Nature and the BBC.

[00:24:35] Bob Paine's foundational paper (1966): Paine, Robert T. "Food web complexity and species diversity." The American Naturalist 100.910 (1966): 65-75.

[00:27:00] James’ 1974 paper: Estes, James A., and John F. Palmisano. "Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities." Science 185.4156 (1974): 1058-1060.

[00:31:48] Otters become victim to Killer Whales; Study: Estes, James A., et al. "Killer whale predation on sea otters linking oceanic and nearshore ecosystems." science 282.5388 (1998): 473-476.

[00:36:45] Megafaunal collapse hypothesis leading to the trophic cascade.

[00:37:40] Book: The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley.

[00:39:38] Study on whaling industry: Springer, Alan M., et al. "Sequential megafaunal collapse in the North Pacific Ocean: An ongoing legacy of industrial whaling?." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100.21 (2003): 12223-12228.

[00:45:31] Tony Sinclair; The invasion of rinderpest into East Africa.

[00:47:52] Book: The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, by Sean B. Carroll.

[00:48:14] Effects on the ecosystem when wildebeests repopulated.

[00:50:35] Bison in Yellowstone and their impact on their environment; Study: Geremia, Chris, et al. "Migrating bison engineer the green wave." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116.51 (2019): 25707-25713.

[00:56:31] Chris Wilmers, Terrie Williams at UC-Santa Cruz; Puma Project.

[00:58:19] Short version of the documentary: Some Animals Are More Equal than Others: Keystone Species and Trophic Cascades (20 min).

[01:00:00] Curiosity Stream.

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