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Habitat characteristics from local to landscape scales combine to shape vertebrate scavenging communities

Pardo-Barquín, Elena, Mateo-Tomás, Patricia, Olea, Pedro P.
Basic and applied ecology 2018
biogeography, biotic factors, cameras, dead animals, ecological function, environmental factors, habitats, landscapes, shrubs, ungulates, vultures, Spain
Abiotic and biotic factors modulate carcass consumption by scavengers, affecting ecosystem functioning. Habitat structure is arguably a key factor influencing scavenging, but its role remains poorly understood, particularly at small spatial scales. We examine how habitat characteristics at landscape (50–1000m radius) and local (≤10m radius) scales around carrion affect the structure of vertebrate scavenging communities. We used remote cameras to monitor the consumption of 151 ungulate carcasses in one temperate (55 carcasses) and two Mediterranean (56 and 40 carcasses) study areas in Spain in 2011–2013. Our results showed complex habitat–scavenger relationships that mainly relied upon the spatial scale, the type of carcass and the study area. While the response of scavenger richness to habitat characteristics was consistent across study areas, the effects of diversity varied regionally at the landscape scale. Large and medium-sized carcasses in open landscapes had lower scavenger richness, likely because open habitats promote vulture dominance. At the local scale, shrub cover lowered scavenger richness and diversity, hindering carrion location by avian scavengers. Our results suggest that the structure of vertebrate scavenging assemblages at carcasses is driven by carcass and habitat characteristics operating as ecological filters at different scales (i.e. local, landscape, and biogeographical), which affect a species’ ability to locate, access and dominate carrion. Understanding the factors underlying the complex habitat–community relationships shown here has implications for managing key ecosystem functions and services. We propose a multi-scale conceptual framework to disentangle scavenger–carcass relationships.