New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge

Mimicking Trophic Cascades

Team: 153

School: The Masters Program

Area of Science: Biology and Environmental science

Interim: School Name: The MASTERS Program

Problem Definition:
"Trophic cascade" is a term implemented in the 1980s that refers to phenomenon caused by the reintroduction of an apex predator (or "keystone" species) into an unhealthy, unbalanced environment. The population changes this predator introduces "cascade" down the food chain, indirectly increasing the abundance and variety of non-dominate species. With fewer large herbivores, sapling trees are able to mature and provide resources for birds and other plants. Willows and grasses offer shelter to smaller hunters such as foxes and raccoons.
The object of this project is to show the value of having many different types of animals and plants in a natural setting. By mimicking a real-life situation, it would show an interaction between primary predator/prey animals and the affects it has on other aspects of the environment.
We intend to copy one of the most frequently used examples of a tropic cascade; the landslide success of the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone. Before the reintroduction, elk had overrun the entire park–especially their wintering ground in Lamar Valley. New cottonwood and aspen trees were unable to outgrow the hungry teeth of the elk, and other vegetation suffered as well. After the wolf population had established itself, the elk herds had fewer sick members, the numbers of coyotes were kept under control, and plants were able to start growing again. Types of animals that had not been present for years, such as beavers and endangered bird species, moved back into the valley. By introducing just one predator, the entire failing ecosystem stabilized itself. This is a straightforward, well documented occasion that we intend to replicate.
Problem Solution:
The project will begin by creating a very basic predator/prey programing model. A few predators will wander around a world over populated with prey. When a predator touches the prey, the prey vanishes or "dies". The prey will repopulate at a certain rate.
After this is completed, the program can start to be made more complicated. The predators can start to reproduce, dominating the food chain, then eventually starve as prey numbers are reduced. Plants can also be incorporated, with their overall health and population being affected along with the prey's. A disease can also be programed and released on a stable ecosystem to evaluate the resilience of the populations.
Progress to Date:
All of the research needed to fully understand and replicate a trophic cascade system has been completed. As the main idea of model is the mimic an already existing situation, the conditions and factors are already outlined. It will also be easy to make it realistic and to give it real-world applications. With all the information available, we have begun to build a basic predator-prey model, and are spending the most time dealing the with appearances of the agents and their environment.
Expected Results:
The final model should be able to demonstrate the functionality of both a balanced and unbalanced food chain/simple trophic cascade. It should feature plants, a dominate prey species, a dominate predator species, and starvation and disease factors that affects predator and prey alike.
"A Wolf." Mission: Wolf. N.p.. Web. 9 Dec 2013.
Eisenberg, Cristina. "The Wolf's Tooth." n.d., n. pag. Print.
Robinson, Michael. Predator Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West. 1st. ed. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005. Print.
Smith, Douglas, Daniel Stahler, et al. "Yellowstone Wolf Project Annual Report." Jan 2012, n. pag. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
"trophic cascade". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2013

Team Members:

  Matthew Romero
  Christopher Brown
  Jenny Reichert

Sponsoring Teacher: Scott Voorhies

Mail the entire Team

For questions about the Supercomputing Challenge, a 501(c)3 organization, contact us at: consult1314 @

New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge, Inc.
Post Office Box 30102
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87190
(505) 667-2864

Supercomputing Challenge Board of Directors
Board page listing meetings and agendas
If you have volunteered for the Challenge, please fill out our In Kind form.