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Fasting or fear: disentangling the roles of predation risk and food deprivation in the nitrogen metabolism of consumers

Dalton, Christopher M., Tracy, Karen E., Hairston, Nelson G., Jr., Flecker, Alexander S.
Ecology 2018 v.99 no.3 pp. 681-689
Poecilia reticulata, acute exposure, energy density, excretion, fearfulness, food availability, food consumption, food deprivation, hormonal regulation, nitrogen, nitrogen cycle, nitrogen metabolism, predation, predators, protein depletion, risk, wastes
Predators can alter nutrient cycles simply by inducing stress in prey. This stress accelerates prey's protein catabolism, nitrogen waste production, and nitrogen cycling. Yet predators also reduce the feeding rates of their prey, inducing food deprivation that is expected to slow protein catabolism and nitrogen cycling. The physiology of prey under predation risk thus balances the influences of predation risk and food deprivation, and this balance is central to understanding the role of predators in nutrient cycles. We explored the separate and combined effects of predation risk and food deprivation on prey physiology and nutrient cycling by exposing guppies (Poecilia reticulata) to predation risk and food deprivation in a 2 × 2 design. We simulated predation risk using chemical cues from a natural predator of guppies, and we created food deprivation by rationing food availability. We measured guppy response as food consumption, growth, tissue energy density, tissue carbon:nitrogen, and nitrogen (N) excretion and assimilation. We found that N‐linked physiological processes (N consumption, assimilation, excretion) were strongly affected by predation risk, independent of food consumption. Guppies excreted substantially less under predation risk than they did under food deprivation or control conditions. These results suggest that predation risk, per se, triggers physiological changes in guppies that increase N retention and decrease N excretion. We suggest that slower N metabolism under predation risk is an adaptive response that minimizes protein loss in the face of predictable, predator‐induced food restriction. Notably, N metabolism shares common hormonal control with food seeking behavior, and we speculate that increased N retention is a direct and immediate result of reduced food seeking under predation risk. Contrary to predation‐stress‐based hypotheses for how predators affect nutrient cycling by prey, our result indicates that even short‐term exposure to predators may decelerate, rather than accelerate, the speed of N cycling by suppressing N turnover by prey.