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Mechanisms of coexistence in diverse herbivore–carnivore assemblages: demographic, temporal and spatial heterogeneities affecting prey vulnerability

Owen‐Smith, Norman
Oikos 2015 v.124 no.11 pp. 1417-1426
Panthera leo, animals, carnivores, demography, developmental stages, ecosystems, environmental factors, food availability, food shortages, herbivores, models, mortality, population dynamics, predation, predators, refuge habitats, risk, savannas, temperate zones, temporal variation, vegetation cover
Simple models coupling the dynamics of single predators to single prey populations tend to generate oscillatory dynamics of both predator and prey, or extirpation of the prey followed by that of the predator. In reality, such oscillatory dynamics may be counteracted by prey refugia or by opportunities for prey switching by the predator in multi‐prey assemblages. How these mechanisms operate depends on relative prey vulnerability, a factor ignored in simple interactive models. I outline how compositional, temporal, demographic and spatial heterogeneities help explain the contrasting effects of top predators on large herbivore abundance and population dynamics in species‐rich African savanna ecosystems compared with less species‐diverse northern temperate or subarctic ecosystems. Demographically, mortality inflicted by predation depends on the relative size and life history stage of the prey. Because all animals eventually die and are consumed by various carnivores, the additive component of the mortality inflicted is somewhat less than the predation rate. Prey vulnerability varies annually and seasonally, and between day and night. Spatial variation in the risk of predation depends on vegetation cover as well as on the availability of food resources. During times of food shortage, herbivores become prompted to occupy more risky habitats retaining more food. Predator concentrations dependent on the abundance of primary prey species may restrict the occurrence of other potential prey species less resistant to predation. The presence of multiple herbivore species of similar size in African savannas allows the top predator, the lion, to shift its prey selection flexibly dependent on changing prey vulnerability. Hence top–down and bottom–up influences on herbivore populations are intrinsically entangled. Models coupling the population dynamics of predators and prey need to accommodate the changing influences of prey demography, temporal variation in environmental conditions, and spatial variation in the relative vulnerability of alternative prey species to predation. Synthesis While re‐established predators have had major impacts on prey populations in northern temperate regions, multiple large herbivore species typically coexist along with diverse carnivores in African savanna ecosystems. In order to explain these contrasting outcomes, certain functional heterogeneities must be recognised, including relative vulnerability of alternative prey, temporal variation in the risk of predation, demographic differences in susceptibility to predation, and spatial contrasts in exposure to predation. Food shortfalls prompt herbivores to exploit more risky habitats, meaning that top–down and bottom–up influences on prey populations are intrinsically entangled. Models coupling the interactive dynamics of predator and prey populations need to incorporate these varying influences on relative prey vulnerability.