Predator Foraging Response To A Resurgent Dangerous Prey
July 4, 2019
- Prey switching occurs when a generalist predator kills disproportionately more of an abundant prey species and correspondingly spares a rarer species. Although this behaviour is a classic stabilizing mechanism in food web models, little is known about its operation in free-living systems which often include dangerous prey species that resist predation.
- We used long-term (1995–2015) data from a large mammal system in northern Yellowstone National Park, USA, to understand how prey preference of a wild, generalist predator (Canis lupus) responds to a shift in prey species evenness involving rising numbers of dangerous prey (Bison bison) and dropping numbers of relatively safer prey (Cervus elaphus).
- Contrary to the prey switching hypothesis, wolves attacked and killed disproportionately more of the rarer, but safer, species. Wolves maintained a strong preference against bison even when this species was more than twice as abundant as elk. There was also evidence that wolves were increasingly averse to hunting bison as relative bison abundance increased.
- Wolves seldom hunted bison because capture success was limited to a narrow set of conditions: larger packs (>11 wolves) chasing smaller herds (10–20 bison) with calves. Wolves scavenged bison carrion instead and did so more frequently as bison abundance increased.
- Our study demonstrates the overarching importance of prey vulnerability to understanding the prey preferences of generalist predators in ecological communities with dangerous prey. The formidable defences of such prey diminish the potential for switching and its stabilizing influence on population dynamics. In these communities, shifts from hunting to scavenging are perhaps more likely than shifts in prey preference. The assumption of switching may therefore overestimate the stability of multi-prey systems that include dangerous prey species.
Author(s): Aimee Tallian, Douglas W. Smith, Daniel R. Stahler, Matthew C. Metz, Rick L. Wallen, Chris Geremia, Joel Ruprecht, C. Travis Wyman and Daniel R. MacNulty